The midday sun rode behind the unlikely pair as they corraled their horses. A soft wind eased the light brown hair from the older man's face. He rested a hand on the younger man's shoulder as the anxious youth attempted to barrel forward with gun blazing. The cool green eyes quickly scanned the beautiful ranch house and the bodies littered on the side of the house. He drew his pistol and motioned for the other to follow. They crept behind the house and snaked their way through the pantry, kitchen and a small corridor leading to the foyer.
The youthful lawman headed for the staircase, while his brightly frocked companion cautiously proceeded towards the parlor. His broad smile and chuckle caused the dark-haired Easterner to turn back and frown. He followed the crimson-sleeved motion and headed for the parlor. By the time he drew up beside his weary partner, both sharing the same dust, grit and grime from their long journey, he was wearing a sloppy grin.
"That, Mr. Dunne, is what I call a match made in heaven." Ezra Standish crowed, his gold tooth glinting.
"And all this time I thought Buck liked redheads." J.D. shook his head, and eyed the bandaged thigh and head of his best friend. "I wonder where Nate and Josiah are?"
"Not here, by the looks of these bandages." Ezra decided, eyeing Buck's ratty linen strips. Ezra's hand rested briefly on the rogue's forehead and he frowned. He then slid his hand over to Buck's upper arm, where Vin Tanner's head rested, covered by unruly curls. "Fever?" J.D. asked, tapping Buck's knee.
"No...but Mr. Wilmington is decidedly hot."
"Jealous, Ace..." Buck croaked, peeling his eyes half open.
"That my good womanizer, is beside the point," Ezra retorted, relieved to find his friends in one piece and breathing. "It would appear you are already spoken for..."
"Huh..." Buck squinted, reaching for the flask the Gambler offered. He took a large swig and rested the expensive flask against his hip. He followed J.D.'s saucy wink and realized why his arm was asleep. He smiled and handed the flask back to Ezra. "Boy had a rough night..." He chuckled and jiggled his arm, causing the shaggy head to move slightly.
"Good Afternoon Mr. Tanner." Ezra drawled, spotting a splash of blue through the tangled hair. "It's a relief to find you among the living, although your choice of sleeping companions leaves a lot to be desired."
"You okay, Slick?" Buck inquired, watching the head rise enough for the face to appear.
"You and Buck out late dancing?" J.D. joked, as the confused blue eyes rested slowly on each face before the head slid back down, landing on Buck's arm again.
"Leave him alone." a quiet order came, punctuated by a curse and a groan.
"Mr. Larabee, you would be well-advised to remain where you are. You bear the resemblence of a body three days after the funeral." Ezra decided, eyeing the pale face, blood encrusted hair and vomit stained clothing. The leader was trying to rise, and finally on the third attempt, he managed to stand.
"She's dead..." He answered J.D.'s silent question.
"I'm sorry, Chris..." J.D. offered, not sure why he felt so bad.
"Thanks, Kid...body's in the main bedroom."
"What happened?" J.D. asked, eyeing the three injured men. "What's Vin doing down here? He shouldn't be out of bed..."
"Long story...Nate here?" Chris cut off the rambing dialect and kept one hand shading his eyes, unable to stand the pain in his head.
"Won't be long." Buck sighed, flicking a concerned glance at the listless tracker. "If they left at first light, should be almost here."
"J.D. see if you can scare up some food." the leader dictated, stopping by Vin's side. He eyed Buck's flushed, damp face and then flicked his gaze to Ezra. "Buck needs tending to...bandages need changing and he's got a fever."
"Surely you jest..." Ezra raised an eyebrow.
"Hey, Ace, I bet you give a great bath..." Buck wiggled his eyebrows and J.D. laughed all the way to the kitchen.
"Rest assured, I will apply a bristle brush in all the right places..." Ezra grinned at Buck's mock wince. The smile on his face didn't match the concern in his eyes as they took in Vin's pale eyes. "Mr. Tanner...Vin...Would you like some water?" Ezra moved to the large buffet table and picked up the pitcher of water J.D. just set down. He took a china coffee cup from a service nearby and filled it.
Vin made no move to reply, contented to rest against Buck. His dull eyes moved when Chris tapped his leg.
"You with us, Cowboy?" The quiet calm in his voice hid his concern.
It wasn't the dull ache in his head or the fire from the broken ribs. It was a pressure on his chest, making it hard to breathe. He was so tired...it was so hard to stay awake. He wanted to tell them all to leave him be. He didn't want Chris fussing over him...hell, his own head was sporting a bloody gash. But just didn't have the energy to say a word...and really didn't care. A china cup appeared before him and he stared at it, raising his face to Ezra and back down again.
Chris didn't miss the flinch of Ezra's wrist and the tension in his face. Both sets of green eyes locked in a silent concerned communicative glance. "Here you are, Vin..." He moved the cup closer and Vin drank. Chris saw Buck wiggling his fingers and realized the arm Vin had been leaning on all night was asleep. "Ezra..." he nodded and the other moved.
"How about we adjust you a bit...and uh..." his nose wrinkled at the rumpled jacket and stench ridden black shirt. "make you comfortable."
As Ezra gentle manuevered him over a few feet, giving both injured men some room, Vin saw Buck wince and raise his arm, flexing it. "Sorry..." he whispered, leaning his head back.
"That's okay, Son...you kept me nice and warm..." Buck cocked his aching head, "...course I ain't used to wakin' up with somebody wearing a smell so uh...unique." He teased, gingerly easing himself into a sitting position. Vin didn't acknowledge the good natured man's barb, his pales eyes slid shut. He exchanged a worried glance with Chris, not missing the concern in the green eyes. "Hell, Chris, he's as tough as they come. He'll get over this...he's just wore out is all."
"Maybe..." Chris sighed, rubbing his aching eyes. "Go on, Ezra, give Buck a hand."
Ezra bit back the urge to retort a flip comeback, and assisted Buck outside. He didn't miss the series of hisses and white teeth gritting. "How is it that you and Mr. Tanner are here?"
"Same way you are..." Buck winced, letting a long rush of air slip out his teeth. He eased himself down on the steps and hobbled to the water pump. Ezra knelt in front on him and produced a knife. "I think if Vin wasn't so bad off when she left out of Four Corners, he'd have figured it out sooner. He conned me into puttin' clothes on 'im, no account sneak...shivering and chattering his teeth..he...GODAMMIT EZRA THAT HURTS!" He bellowed, shoving the Gambler.
"Juvenile!" Ezra tossed back, peeling away the last of the dirty bandage. The wound was fairly deep and an angry red. It was hot to the touch and bearing an acrid odor. "It's infected..." he issued, pulling out a match.
"You stick me with that thing and you'll be singing soprano in Josiah's church." Buck warned, watching the Southerner run the blade over the flame.
"I've seen schoolgirls with more intestinal fortitude." Ezra chaffed, pouring a bit of whiskey over the blade. He felt Buck flinch as the hissing sound rose. He used one hand to shove the larger man backwards onto the barrel by the pump. "Brace yourself..."
"Isn't that what you usually say to Colette or Claudine or whatever the hell her name is?" Buck cantered, gripping the fence behind him.
"It's Chantelle..." Ezra said, laying open the wound and deftly scraping out the yellowish fluid. Without missing a beat, he poured whiskey in to the wound. He dodged Buck's foot as it jerked and winced at the wave of colorful curses that colided with his ears. Buck did have a knack for stringing together phrases. He couldn't help chuckling.
"You don't have to enjoy it so fuckin' much..." Buck complained, attempting to stand. A firm hand stopped his progress.
"We're not finished yet."
"What do you mean 'we'?" Buck complained, watching Ezra rummaging in the saddlebag of his horse. "You may be my idol..." he laughed and shook his head as the grinning Conman approached. "Where the hell did you get that?"
"A gentlemen never tells." Ezra supplied, ripping the delicate white petticoats into strips.
"Gentlemen?" Buck frowned, spotting the nimble fingers soaking the strips in whiskey and water. "Now hold on a minute..." He hollered, spotting pink and lavender bows. "You ain't trussin' me up in ladie's underwear."
"It wouldn't be the first time." Ezra retorted, tying the last bandage in place and leaving a pastel accented masterpiece. "Lovely...it suits you."
"I got a long memory Ezra." Buck warned, bending over to wash his face. Suddenly the ground began spinning. "Shit..." He buckled, arms flailing.
"Please refrain from drowning if at all possible. I have no proper funeral attire with me." Ezra dictated, grabbing the flushed older man and sitting him back on the barrel. He tilted the head and spotted the jagged wound.
"Don't even think about it...I ain't wearin' bloomers on my head."
"Only on Saturday nights?" Ezra guessed, soaking his handkerchief in water and dabbing the cut.
After applying the last whiskey laced, bow-bedecked bandages to Buck Wilmington's head, he scowled as the large hand grabbed the silver flask. With two gulps, Buck finished it. Both heads turned as the sound of hooves entered the yard.
"Josiah..." Ezra nodded, keeping a firm hand on Buck and preventing any movement.
"Goddammit Nathan..." Buck complained, suddenly hot and dizzy, "You couldn't have gotten here a few minutes earlier." He swayed and blinked, closing his eyes. The booming laughter drew them open, "Shut up, Preacher."
"You cut a fine figure of a man, Buck Wilmington." The large man said, moving out of the way.
"Hey, Nate..." Buck grinned weakly, but the silent wrathful face caused his smile to fade. The brown eyes burned right through him. "I can explain..." He paused.
"Where is he?" Nate growled.
"In the house...parlor." He corrected as the other man spun around. "Hey, Nate...I'll take what's coming. Hell, you wanna take a swing..." He offered, standing up and limping forward. "But go easy on Vin...he's not up to snuff right now."
"He would be if his sorry ass were back home where it belonged." He snapped, grabbing his bags and muttering all the way inside.
+ + + + + + +
Chris was sitting in a chair a few feet away. His mind was ten years gone...lost in a nostalgic haze of a beautiful smile, soft curves, angelic eyes..."Sarah..." He whispered, recalling the first blissful days of their marriage. He didn't think it was possible to be so happy and not in heaven. Maybe that was heaven. He ached for her...so much so it caused him to bend over, wrapping his arms around his chest. He eyed the fine array of crystal decanters on the rolling brass cart several feet away. He ambled over, picked out a bottle of expensive brandy and took a healthy swig. His eyes lingered across the foyer into the dining room. He flinched, recalling the pain he felt when Vin left that night.
"Why didn't ya believe me?"
He turned and staggered over, sitting on the edge of the huge divan and passing the bottle to Vin. Vin's question was punctuated with two blue exclamation points, whose bottomless depths were eating right through him. Vin took a swig and handed the bottle back. Chris sighed and looked away, dropping his head in shame.
"It wasn't you..." He hushed.
"Git yer head up and talk to me..." Vin angered, fighting to stay awake.
"I did believe you Vin." He said, staring hard and true. "It was myself I had no faith in. I was so angry...Hell I was pissed off at you...I was furious. Who the hell did you think you were? Getting into my face...making me see myself for what I was." He jerked and rose, striding to the mantle a few feet away.
Vin studied the profile of the man he cared for too deeply to understand. He saw the pain, masked by shame and laced with fear. He waited, giving Chris enough time to regroup.
Finally, the blond turned and sighed.
"You knew...from the time you met her." He said quietly, retracing his steps and sitting back down. "How could I have been so blind?" His bitterness eeked out. "She used me, Vin...She killed Adam and Sarah...she cut my heart out." His voice wavered and his eyes clenched shut. His balled up fists were ground into the fabric. The fire inside was threatening to explode as was the moisture in his eyes. He bent over, rested his head on his arms and mourned. For all that was and all that should of been.
Vin felt the heavy sorrow surrounding his best friend. He saw the shoulders heaving slightly and heard only a single sob. But it was enough...and it felt like his heart was clenched. He winced physically as Chris's pain slammed into him. He felt the room slipping away and took a deep breath. He turned his head painfully sideways, seeing the slumped body resting in half. He slid one hand on the back of Chris's neck and squeezed it solidly.
"She was fine woman...lucky t' have ya. I wish I could have..." Vin paused, words choking inside. "...uh...damn lucky kid, Adam....helluva Pa." He heard the last gasp and saw the bloody head rise. He dropped his arm and Chris snagged it, locking forearms. "Ya look like shit, Larabee..." he decided, eyeing the bloody head, red rimmed eyes and dirty face.
"Go to hell, Tanner." Chris rasped, struggling to control his emotions.
"Thought we was goin' together?" Vin yawned, surrendering to the sandman.
"Until that time, Cowboy..." Chris said huskily, sending his heart in every word.
Nate slipped inside, hell bent on giving Vin Tanner a piece of his mind. He was definitely going to lay into him but good. He eyed Chris briefly, frowning at the blood matted into the slumbering blond's head. The leader was fast asleep in a chair a few feet from Vin. The irate healer dropped at the injured tracker's side and unsnapped his bag. His hand froze as his mind flashed back in time. Vin's warm voice the day Doc Gibson's house. The steady, silent presense by his side as the coffin was lowered. He lifted the stethescope out and flicked a glance at the pale face.
"Shit..." he hissed as his wrath fled like a yellow rate, scurrying out of the room.
"Coward." Josiah teased, chuckling at Nate's emotional face.
"Shut up, Josiah..." Nate tossed back, handing him a ceramic container. "Heat this up, I'm gonna slather his chest with it."
"Need a hand?"
"Thanks Ezra. Lift him forward, so's I can get this shirt off him. Damn..." He screwed his face up at the vomit clinging to the tattered black shirt. "Indeed." Ezra agreed, eyeing Buck dozing in a wing chair by the window. He eased Vin forward and watched Nathan quickly dispense of the shirt and the one under it. "Good Lord..." Ezra astonished, seeing every inch of the tracker's chest littered with every shade of blue, purple and scarlett.
"Hold him..." Nate warned, cutting the bandages off and eyeing the healing bullet wound. He dabbed some medicine on it and gently felt around the ribcage. Vin's eyes shot open and he gasped audibly. "You just had to bust some on the other side, didn't ya?" He shook his head and wrapped the chest tightly. He looked twice at Vin, who never uttered a sound, his eyes were clouded and lost. He used the stethescope and made made Vin cough several times. By the time he was finished, the tracker's face was red and his eyes tearing.
"Diagnosis?" Ezra inquired, easing Vin back down.
"Congestion...he's loaded with it." Nate shook his head.
"Ain't ya got some of that cat piss?" Vin whispered, eyes flitting hopefully.
"That bad?" Nate rested a hand on the pale face, relieved to find it cool.
"Can't breathe...tired...feel like a damn old man..."
"Josiah's heatin' up something for your chest. I'll make you some tea as soon as I have a look at your foot."
"Chris is hurt...go..." Vin slurred, weakly pushing the dark hand away.
Nate sighed and made his way to the leader's side. He tapped Chris's shoulder and two bloodshot green eyes opened. He saw the words forming before the lips opened.
"Save your breath. I already seen to him. Now it's your turn." He nodded gratefully to Ezra who appeared with a basin of soap and water, his bag and a bottle of Carbolic. "He's pretty sick, but with rest and medicine, he'll pull through." He answered the silent question. Chris nodded and turned his head, allowing the talented fingers to work their magic.
Josiah entered and updated Nathan. The water was simmering and would be ready when the healer needed it. J.D. followed with a large tray of sandwiches and some fruit. He took one look at the pastel bows on Buck's head and hooted. Buck never opened his eyes, but sent a single finger salute towards his best friend.
Ezra was halfway to the fireplace, where J.D. had already started a fire. He held out the black rag with one finger, grimacing at it's rancid odor.
"One more step and I'll blow that fancy French cuff right off your cheatin' wrist."
"Damn!" J.D. beamed, eyeing his wounded hero. "How's he do that? I wish I could do that." He noted of Chris Larabee, who issued his threat without opening an eye. A pistol, previously tucked in his waistband, was now aimed at Ezra.
The Gambler turned, red-faced and scowled, just as the steely voice sounded again. "Take it outside and wash it."
"Have you lost what's left of your mind? What on earth for?" He stammered.
"'cause I asked." Chris gritted, eyes opening a slit.
"Point taken...." Ezra agreed, seeing the telltale vein on the blond's neck twitching like a bug on a frypan.
"What's with the shirt? I don't get it?" J.D. asked.
Nathan was pleased with the progess of the foot. It still looked awful, and was weeks away from being healed, but it was better. He doused it with an herbal wrap and bandaged it. Among the hum of activity around them, as plates of food were passed around and Josiah sported shots of whiskey for everyone, Nate saw Vin's eyes, just before the younger man turned away in shame.
"Oh no you don't...that shit stops here and now." He hollered, silencing the room. He moved forward and sat beside Vin on the Divan. The sharpshooter shifted uncomfortably, but Nate persisted, "We're gonna talk. I gotta know, Vin. Why can't you look at me? What did that brute say to you?" He drilled and saw Vin turn away, inhaling sharply. The large eyes were like shimmering blue pools. "Look at me, Vin."
Vin felt the little breath he could produce leaving him. He felt the walls closing in and the ceiling falling. His heart began to hammer and he felt the sweat flowing down his back. He shivered and pulled the blanket back up. Finally, he raised his face and looked only at Nate, shutting the rest of the room away.
"I thought...if I told 'em...I could..." Vin's voice died out, and he felt his throat tighten up. His face flushed with color as the tauts and jeers of the brutes outside town that night came back in full color.
"You offered yourself over...didn't you?" Nate's voice was full of shock, which quickly turned to rage when the shaggy head dipped once in acknowledgement. "GODDAMMIT VIN!" he screamed, hurling the unfortunate glass of liquor across the room.
"What?" J.D. asked, eyeing Nate and then the others.
"You told them about Tuscosa? About the money?" Chris's voice was nearly as livid as Nathan's.
Vin flinched and felt every bit of Chris and Nate's fury. He nodded once and his face felt like he had a bad sunburn. His eyes ached to close and he wished he could escape somehow. But maybe Nathan was right. Maybe the running had to stop.
"WHY?" Nate hollered, grabbing Vin's forearms and forcing the tortured blue eyes to meet his. "How could you do that to me? How dare you! I'm no better that you, Vin Tanner. How was seeing you hanging off a tree limb gonna make me feel?"
"They was gonna hang ya, Nate...They had the rope on ya...was gettin' the horse ready..." Vin stammered, voice breaking. "They was gonna make me watch...ya...struggle fer yer last breath...I couldn't ...I had t' try, Nate..."
"Why?" Nate shook his head."Don't you think we're equal, Vin?"
"Hell no." Vin said, taking Nate's hands in his own and turning them palms up. He paused, his heavy chest constricting his breathing. "...yer heart...these hands...God's tools." He said thickly. "...holder and giver of life...I seen ya use these...save folks..."
Nate swallowed hard, overcome by the sheer power in the humble man's words. He felt every one of them and it took a full minute for him to find his voice. He reversed their hands, now holding Vin's palm up. He waited until the full blue eyes were looking at him. "...this noble heart...a stranger's white hands...my brother's hands...saved this dark hide from a lynch mob in a cemetary...God's tools..." he said thickly, his eyes filling up. "Okay? We clear on that shit now?"
Vin inhaled sharply, face blushing even brighter at the gentle healer's words. He nodded once and felt the strong hand clasp the back of his head. He stared hard at Nathan and saw the respect pouring from the dark eyes. How could he tell this proud man? How could he admit what he'd done? He bit his lip as the moment came back...Nate's exposed back...the whip...the bald brute's leering face and cruel hands.
"Oh God..." He gasped, dropping his head. "I'm sorry...Nathan...God fergive me..."
"Vin?" Nate puzzled, not sure what caused the cloak of guilt to fall. "What's wrong?" He eyed the face full of color and eyes skirting shame. His bit back his anger and guessed the source. "The whipping?" Nate guessed and saw the head bob once and the large burst of air escape Vin.
"You ain't got nothin' to be ashamed of. Is that what's been botherin' you these last couple months? Them brutes takin' a lash to me..."
"Weren't them what whipped ya..." Vin whispered, every word like a razor in his throat. He tried twice to continue but the words were buried in a stifle. Chris made short work of the carpet and sat on the other side of Vin. He gripped the Vin's shoulder and squeezed hard.
"Out with it, Vin. Nate's right...that shit stops here and now. You ain't totin' that around anymore." He coached, forcing the head to rise. He sat back stunned at the tears running down Vin's face. "What is it?" He said softly, wondering what had caused his best friend's soul to shatter so painfully.
"I...I...I can't..." He denied, but Nate would have none of it.
"The hell you can't..."
So Vin took the deepest breath of his young life and stared hard into the warm brown eyes. So hard, Nate felt those blue orbs scorch his very soul. "My God, Vin...What?" He asked painfully.
"I did it..." Vin gasped, collapsing back, not wiping the tear tracks and not caring.
"You can't stop there, Vin." Josiah said from across the room. "Get it out before it kills you...by inches."
Vin took several shimmering, shaking breaths, his jaw worked but no words would come. Ezra appeared with a glass of brandy, which the younger man accepted gratefully. He sipped it and rested it on his leg.
"Come on Cowboy..." Chris gentled, keeping a firm grip on the slumped shoulder.
So Vin took another deep breath and began. "I told 'em about the bounty...they...laughed at me." He dropped his head. "that big brute...spit in my face...money...he didn't want money...he said after they hung ya...they was gonna..." he paused, biting his lip and shifting his gaze to the blanket. "...use me like whore..." He shut his eyes, recalling the lewd hands on his body.
"Fuck..." Chris hissed, annoyed that he killed the bald bigot so quickly.
"That's when he told me...what I had to do...they drug me over and cut m'hands free. He tossed the whip at me." He gazed sorrowfully at Nathan, "Ya was tied to a tree...only had a couple lashes on ya. He told me t' pick it up and use it on ya...I told 'im to go to hell and spit on 'im." Vin's voice cracked and he halted. "Then...they...he...shit...I can't do this, Chris." He pleaded, but the green ice stare denied him.
"We ain't leavin' until you do. You can't carry that inside, Vin. It damn near killed you." Chris directed harshly.
"He picked up a bag from the wagon and dug his hand inside...it was salt." Vin choked, eyes full, "he ground it yer wounds..." he faced Nate and felt the healer grip his hand tightly. "I never heard nobody scream like that...not never." he closed his eyes and the unholy sound filled his head.
"Go on, Vin." Nate eased, squeezing the hand and trying to keep the bile from rising in his gut.
"He told me t' pick up the whip...I wouldn't do it...so..he...so...damn..." Vin paused, taking a deep breath and another sip of his brandy. "he squatted down and took out a knife and cut the skin on yer leg...said he was gonna peel ya ...real slow...take hours..." Vin choked, two tears snaking their way down his face. "Ya screamed again...like the devil himself was grabbin' yer balls. I damn near died..." Vin hushed, shivering slightly. "I didn't know what t'do...I kept shaking m'head....lookin' at that whip. And that fucker kept grinding that salt in yer leg and yer back...and cut ya again...Ya kept screamin'...so I picked it up." Vin said, wide-eyed. His heart was hammering so hard it made him wince. He bit his lip and took another deep breath. "I'm sorry, Nate...Jesus God I'm sorry..." He dropped his head and wiped his eyes. He felt a hand tip his chin up and found himself staring right into Nathan Jackson's soul.
"You ain't got no reason to hang your head. Don't you disrespect me like that again. Now get yourself together and finish this mess." He ordered, and saw Vin take several small breaths. He watched the grip Chris had on his shoulder intensify. Vin lifted his gaze to the green eyes bearing down on him. Neither exchanged a word, Chris sent his support silently and Vin nodded.
"I tried hard...to miss or barely hit ya...but that made 'em mad...so they'd grind the salt in again and cut yer leg. Harder...harder...harder...they was yellin'." Vin screwed his face up. "They was drinkin' somethin' fierce. Hell, half of 'em was passed out in the wagon by then. That big fella...he moved the knife...dropped yer pants...he was gonna cut yer balls..." Vin paused for another breath.
"Iffen I didn't use the whip right...harder...I didn't have no choice...so I kept eyein' them drinkin' and strung it out a bit...hopin' somehow if they got drunk and passed out...I could cut ya down." Vin closed his eyes and dropped his head, remembering the painful hours of torture and degradation.
"What did you do Vin?" Nate asked slowly, feeling a coldness clench his gut. Vin never said a word, he didn't have to. His hand trembled inside Nate's and his frantic darting eyes gave him away. Several long seconds passed, and Chris and Nate exchange a hard glance. One look in the icy green eyes told the healer, Chris suspected too.
Chris knew...he read it clearly in the blue eyes trying to hide. The adam's apple was bobbing furiously and Vin's breathing was harsh, every painful breath was being forced past his lips. Chris lifted the fallen face and nodded once; Vin returned the consent and continued.
"I did what I had to...to keep us both alive..." Vin choked, tears running down his face.
"Sweet Jesus..." Nathan choked, wondering how men as courageous as Vin Tanner wore the mantle with such grace.
"It weren't so bad...I'd use that lash a couple times and pretend to pass out...they had some fun with me and then haul me up again."
"Vin, did they..." Chris bit off the word, he couldn't bring himself to say it.
"No...they's too drunk..." He disarmed of Chris's fear of rape. "But they did everything else...forced me to..." He bit off the sentence and shook his head.
"Go on, Vin...get rid of it." Nate directed, his gentle voice reaching the painful victim
"...when I passed out, they pissed on me to wake up...did a lot of gropin' and such. So I kept fightin' and they kept drinkin'...well...one by one they passed out...except that fucker with no hair. He made me do things..." Vin pulled his hand free and wrapped both arms around his chest, rocking slightly. Chris kept his hand on Vin's shoulder and let the younger man regain his composure. Finally the jaw worked, "He tied the rope on m'neck to the tree limb and had me on m'knees...he tried to...but he couldn't...It scared the shit outta me..."
"A lesser man would have died..." Ezra said quietly, like his comrades, astounded beyond words at Vin's unspeakably brave act.
"I ain't no hero, Ezra..." Vin growled, his eyes flashing an angry blue. "Don't say that, not never..." his hands shook with anger. "It weren't nothin' to be proud of...after today, I don't ever wanna remember...you got no idea how long it 'fore I could sleep at night...kept seein' Nate's back...that fucker with no hair...makin' me..." He gasped and bit his lip, Chris's grip was now beyond painful. "Chris, yer hurtin' me..."
"Huh?" Chris blinked, unaware of this tense deathlock. Vin words and the mental images caused a molten lava flow inside him. Like Ezra, he considered Vin's selfless act an amazing feat or courage. "Sorry..." he relaxed his grip, letting his hand fall to his side.
"...when he couldn't...he got mad...and got sloppy...startin' beatin' on me a bit and grabbed the whip...his eyes was all crazy and red...he went behind me and fer a minute I thought he was gonna use it...but he cut me down and started screamin' at me to hit Nate. It was never good enough, and he started wavin' that damn knife around. Then..." Vin stopped as the horrific moment came back." Aw, hell..." He shook his head, as a lone tear threatened to spill. "Then...he grabbed yer head and pulled it back...said ya was dead...Oh God..." he sighed. "I can't..."
"Finish it Vin." Chris rasped, gripping the knee through the blanket.
"The storm kicked up, lightnin' flashin' and thunder rumblin'' Them that could stagger got up from the ground and found their horses. I couldn't breathe...I kept seein' ya...hearin' 'im say I killed ya...over and over...laughin' and bangin' yer face against the tree. 'Ya killed him...over and over. I don't remember much else...they tossed me in the wagon...last thing I recall is his hands on me and his face...he was sayin' he was gonna finish what he started back in town. The damn wagon was bouncin' all over. I musta fell out...or jumped...I kept seein' Nate and hearin' the fucker say 'Ya killed him'."
His eyes slid shut and he fell back exhausted, but relieved at the same time. He didn't try to stop the tears, they were too long waiting. He felt a hand on the side of his face, and a cool cloth. Someone was wiping the salty penance drops away. He opened his eyes and as Nathan's hand gripped the side of his head.
"Thank you, Vin." He said thickly, barely able to speak. "Damn scruffy tracker, you saved my life. Why didn't you say something sooner? Why did you let that poison eat you up inside?" He asked, raising the downcast face. "You had nothing to be ashamed of..."
"The hell I didn't." Vin choked, "I damn near beat a good friend to death...my hands...had yer blood all over 'em...I couldn't get the blood off...I tried..."
"...the blood of the lambs..." Ezra shivered, recalling Vin's plight in the church.
"You listen to me Vin Tanner," Nate's voice grew hard, "You get that fuckin' mangy head of yours up and don't you ever let me hear you say shit like that again. I don't know any man who would have had the courage to do something that brave. I know I couldn't...and I'll never be able to repay you." Nate paused, collecting himself. "So, if it's okay with you, I'd like to shake the hand of the finest man I know. God bless you, Vin Tanner."
Vin struggled for a moment, then offered his hand slowly, Nathan took the hand, arm and body, embracing Vin and gripping the back of his head. With a deep sigh, he released the shaking buffalo hunter. "Now, look what you did...got salt stains all over my shirt."
"Not to worry, Mr. Jackson," Ezra said, winking, "I happen to know of a charming black custom piece that would suit your needs. For a suitable fee..." He said, squeezing Vin's shoulder and nodding as he joined Josiah in the Dining Room.
"I'm gonna check on that chest balm...should be done by now. " Nate said, patting Vin's leg and moving to the kitchen.
"Want me to round up them bodies and take them to town?" the youth asked Chris, who was staring emotionally at the now slumbering sharpshooter. "Chris?" He said quietly and saw the blond head dip once. Chris used J.D.'s extended arm to steady himself as he made his way out of the room.
J.D. went to get the sheriff, taking the bodies with him. He loaded them into a wagon and carried Ella out last. Chris winced visibly as the arm slipped from under the blanket the youthful sheriff wrapped her in. Josiah had been helping him and quickly covered it up. Chris tossed his sandwich down, blurring visions of Sarah and Adam dying...Vin's torture at the feline sadist's hands...Vin being forced to do unspeakable acts. It wasn't fair...how could God torture so many good people. What did Adam, an innocent child, do to deserve a death like that?
"Why?" He seethed, crushing the misfortunate roll in his hand. He felt empty suddenly, void of all feelings. He shivered, almost ice cold as if the temperature dropped. He felt a tap on his arm and saw Buck looming over him.
"Let's you and me take a walk, Old Friend." the gentle voice guided.
He nodded and let Buck lead him outside. It was a glorious spring day, and on any other day, it would be a great day to ride the wind. But not today. He walked slowly, aware of Buck limping and the fever flushed face. The found two large rockers on the porch and settled down. Buck produced an expensive bottle of whiskey, and handed it over. He knew Chris Larabee better than most and knew how to handle him. He sat back, watching the painful display of emotions riding unchecked in the green eyes. Finally, he spoke.
"I'm sorry, Chris..."
"That's not what I meant..." Buck sighed, taking a swig and passing the bottle. "I mean about Mexico...if I hadn't been so damn bossy..."
"Nobody held a gun to my head Buck. Hell, how long had it been since we kicked loose like that? I wanted to stay...took me three years to find my balls and say that." He offered his hand. "I'm sorry, Buck. You're a helluva friend...better that I deserve."
"I won't argue with that" Buck teased, getting a small grin.
"I gotta coldness in me Buck...I thought...all these years...of nothing but revenge...killing...feeling my hands on the throat of the bastard who did it."
"Now, I feel like fuckin' corpse inside. There's nothing there." He sighed, easing back and closing his eyes.
"Was it an accident?" Buck asked quietly.
"Yes...no...she was gonna kill Vin. Had that fuckin' needle ready to stick him in the neck. I jumped her and the needle got stuck in her stomach." "Damn..."
"She begged in the end...first time I ever saw her shook up...scared..." Chris shot, "I could have pulled it out..."
"But..." Buck hedged.
"But, I pushed it ..hard..." he reflected. "...and I'd do it again. She was evil..." He shuddered. "When will this emptiness go away Buck?"
"I don't know, Pard. But maybe it's time to leave the past behind. She was your last link. You got a lot to live for now Chris. I'd kinda like to be there ...to see you smile again."
"Smile?" Chris frowned, "You're askin' a lot...or drunk."
Buck laughed and took the bottle back. He recalled how many other relaxing talks they had on Chris's porch. Adam playing nearby, Sarah on Chris's lap, kissing and cuddling. Hell, they acted like newlyweds right until that last goodbye. He held the bottle up. "To Sarah Larabee..." He took a swig and passed the bottle. Chris took a long sip and nodded. "Smile huh?" He crinkled his nose. "I don't know..."
"I do...it started comin' when you took a shinin' to that ratty-assed Texan." Buck decided, elbowing Chris gently. "You gotta soft spot for him."
"You got a death wish." Chris grinned, and Buck saw the light in the green eyes. He smiled, Chris had no idea how when it came to Vin Tanner, his feelings were as clear as glass. He thought on the wonderful changes the Texan brought to Chris and felt a warmth inside.
"You know something Chris." Buck paused, painfully recalling Vin's testimony, "That Boy...he's the real deal. How the hell did he hold that inside? No wonder he was busted up...shit...makes me wanna ride back and dig those fuckers up. Shoot some holes in 'em."
"I'll drink to that." Chris nodded, taking the bottle. "There's something about him Buck..." He said softly.
"Yeah..." Buck agreed, feeling the warmth inside as Vin's silent 'Hey Bucklin' filled his ears. As if orchestrated by the hands of Fate, the old friends' quiet moment of reflection was interrupted rudely.
"NO! Git that shit away from me. It smells like a damn polecat squatted in it and took a dump."
"Slick does have a way with words." Buck chuckled, eyeing Chris laughing outright.
"Get your arms down and let me slather this on your chest. That infection's got a good hold on you. Don't piss me off Vin."
"You move or I'll tell Buck and Ezra your real name."
A pregnant pause as Buck sat up, perky and attentive, ears peeled. The sight of this made Chris laugh harder.
"Aw, hell." The defeated Texan drawled, accepting his fate.
"Shit...It ain't Vincent?" Buck wheeled, smacking Chris's leg. "Come on, give..." He peered intently. "Hell, you don't know, do you?"
"Nope." the blond shook his head and grinned evilly. "Neither does Nathan, but Vin don't know that...keeps him honest."
"Buck...Buck Wilmington, get your ass in here."
"Shit...Where can I hide?" Buck fretted as Nathan's voice drew near. He managed to get to his feet and stiffly make his way across the porch. Too late...the door opened and the irate healer appeared. "What the hell's wrong with you? You got a fever workin' on you. Get you ass in there and up them stairs. There's a large guestroom top of the hall. I got some willow bark..." "Nathan have a heart..."
"Don't you sass me, I ain't even begun to lecture you on kidnappin' Vin." "I didn't kidnap him...Did he tell you that?" Buck's voice began to fade away as Chris walked over to the corral. His mind went back in time to that fateful day he left. Adam's laughing eyes and Buck's proud one's both riding on the same horse. The tender night of passion he and Sarah shared the night before. The child that never got the chance to be born. He sat on the corral for a long time, thinking on his life. Was Buck right? With Ella's death, was there closure? He had good friends now and a new life if he wanted it, in Four Corners. What about his feelings for Mary and Billy? He heard Sarah and Adam's laughter as they waved to him and faded away. The void closed a little and with time and some healing...maybe just maybe, there would be many sunny days ahead with another beautiful woman by his side and another laughing boy to call son.
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