Disclaimer: I own no rights to, nor do I mean infringement of any type of the series, Magnificent Seven.
Note: This is meant as a sequel to the episode Obsession It's also a companion piece to my story, After Obsession and there are some references to that story, however, it may be read alone. I began this story in 1999 and finished it in 2008. I, and my betas, have endeavored to make it flow despite differences in my writing style over the last 9 years. Most recently thanks to Renegade and Kimber who, despite a medical emergency and a few libations, sat on a hard hotel room floor with me, squeezing in between 2 beds of fen watching Supernatural, one night during Mediawest and helped me plot what I had given up on ever seeing - the words "the end" at the end of this monster.
Acknowledgements: First and foremost, as always, to my heart sister, Muse who, no matter what, has always been looking over my shoulder and encouraging me. To Kaly and Oracle who were with us in the beginning and who continue to be in my life. To our sweet Ninheve, lost to us perhaps but never, ever forgotten. To all of the friends I've gathered along the journey this last nine years, to those who have encouraged me and even to those who have discouraged me. You have been instrumental in keeping me writing stories with Chris, Vin, JD, Buck, Josiah, Ezra and Nathan as the characters. To those who've looked at this and told me what worked and - more importantly - what didn't. To those who have called themselves my fans. That statement alone has helped me weather many a storm.
Thank you all!
Warnings: Language (they still won't say shucks and gol' darn it for me!) and violence, including torture and non-consensual sex that involves two of the seven. Description of violence against women and children.
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He recognized this place, although he hadn't seen it in... a lifetime? Nothing seemed to have changed. He looked at his companion and said, "reckon we're home." As it had been for several days, his companion did not reply.
JD Dunne was the first to see them. He was sitting outside the jail, playing mumblety-peg with Casey Wells when movement caught his eye. He glanced up to see a familiar figure approaching on just as familiar a horse. "Chris?"
Casey looked up as he called the name. "What's he carryin' JD?"
"Darned if I know. Something's wrong though. Go get Nathan?"
"Sure," the young woman sprinted down the street toward the healer's little clinic.
Dunne took a deep breath and stepped into the street. Something didn't sit right, but he couldn't put a finger to it. He stepped into the path of the black. Looking up he saw that Larabee wasn't yet aware of his presence. "Chris?"
The rider pulled up and looked toward the young man without really seeming to see him. As he did, his hold on the blanket wrapped bundle he carried shifted. JD gasped as a dark, skeletal arm escaped its binding and dropped, lifelessly, against the man in black's leg. "Oh God, Chris...who-?"
"Chris?" A deep voice called the name now. The kid turned to see Nathan Jackson approaching, followed closely by Josiah Sanchez. It had been the preacher who had spoken.
"Chris, who is it? Who are you carrying?" Sanchez spoke slowly and calmly as he approached. The man on horseback turned toward this new voice, but still did not answer. He barely seemed to register anything or anyone around him. Josiah stepped closer, coming right up next to the black horse. Cautiously, he reached up and touched the man. "Chris, it's Josiah. Let me take your burden from you... all right?" As he spoke, he moved toward the body in Larabee's arms.
"NO!" The blond's voice was a whisper, but the tone was adamant. As he moved to protect the person he carried, the blanket fell away. Vin Tanner's sunburned, bruised and emaciated face turned toward them. Eyes closed, he seemed to be only peacefully sleeping. JD cried out, quickly hushed by an equally shocked Jackson.
Recovering first, Josiah said quietly, "alright... alright. Come with us then?" He started down the street, motioning the others to accompany him. Hesitating only a few seconds, the gunslinger shifted Tanner into a more comfortable position and coaxed Pony forward, moving up the street behind the trio on foot. As they passed the saloon, Buck and Ezra appeared on the walk.
"Chris!" Wilmington whooped and started toward his old friend, oblivious to the strangeness that surrounded the man. He stopped short as Sanchez waved him off at the same time that Ezra grabbed his arm. The gambler, at least, saw that something was wrong, even if the big man did not. Buck stopped and asked with his eyes what none of them could answer. What had happened to their two friends; their brothers of the gun?
The bizarre parade continued down the street, calling the attention of many of the town's residents. Men, women and children came out to watch; moving no closer than the edge of the dusty street as the seven strode by. The men themselves; five of them at least, saw nothing but the men riding double on the familiar black gelding. No one could guess what Chris Larabee saw, and it was almost certain that Vin Tanner saw nothing.
Coming to the clinic stairs, they stopped to decide how best to proceed. Larabee made the decision for them, however. He seemed to rally from his stupor; looking upward, he clearly recognized the little makeshift clinic. Shifting Vin's body slightly, he managed to dismount and pull the other man down into his arms. Although the others stayed close, they gave him the space he seemed to need. Awkwardly settling the limp form in his arms, Chris slowly made his way up the stairs. Nathan hurried ahead to ready the clinic, while the others followed them up the steps into the room. Larabee walked straight to the bed and gently lowered Vin to it. He lightly brushed the curling locks, now dirty and matted, from the abused face. "We're home, pard." He straightened slowly, suddenly seeming very tired. Staggering slightly, he made no move to get away when Josiah pulled a chair over and lowered him to it.
Cautiously Nathan approached the bed, but Larabee did not argue this time. The healer set to work examining the tracker. Pulling the blanket away, he cursed softly as he got his first good look at Tanner. Never one to show a spare ounce, the man now seemed to be little more than a skeleton covered by deeply sunburned yet near-translucent flesh. There were bruises and cuts covering him head to toe, but fortunately there seemed to be no more serious injuries. Beyond seeming starvation, the young man appeared to be relatively uninjured. Dressed only in ripped and filthy drawers, the young man was covered in dirt and grime as well.
"Josiah, can you get some water...lots of it. We're gonna have to scrub him down 'fore I can even tell for certain if he's hurt anywhere. JD, can you take Pony to the livery and then go on down to Vin's wagon and bring him some clothes?" Dunne was still shaken, and the healer wanted to spare the kid at least some of what was to come.
"Ezra, reckon I could use your help here. Buck, can you check Chris over... see if he's hurt anywhere?" Nathan fell into his role and organized the others. With sounds of agreement, the men set about their appointed chores.
It took more than an hour to clean the listless hunter up enough to see that there were no wounds deeper than a cut or two that needed to be cleaned and stitched. There were signs of a variety of old injuries that had healed with time, if not care. Taking care of the injuries yet to heal, Jackson and Standish got Vin into the clean clothes JD had returned with. The ex-slave was most concerned with the fact that through it all the tracker had not responded in any way.
"Nathan, what's wrong with him?" Dunne asked from where he stood at the window.
"Looks like he's been starved JD, and he's dehydrated. Other than that..." The former slave hesitated, before finishing with, "I can't find anything too serious...although that's enough."
"That doesn't make sense. I mean Chris is thinner than when they left, moving kind of stiff, but other than that he seems in fair shape... what could have happened?"
"There's only two men here that know the answer to that; we're just gonna have ta wait 'til they can tell us."
Chris had allowed Buck to look him over. The gunman could find nothing; there was not a mark on the trim body that couldn't be accounted for by old and almost healed injuries. He was down a few pounds and they'd noticed a slight limp when he walked, but other than that he seemed physically as fit as he had the day he and Vin had left town. That had been over two months ago.
"Chris, you're still not well enough ta be doin' this."
"Nathan, it's been damn near a month now. I'm fine," Larabee said firmly. He was just finishing putting together his gear for a long trip. Nearby, Vin was doing the same.
"You ain't fine. You know what happened last night when you tried to smoke one of them cheroots of yours."
The gunman shook his head as the memory of a ten minute coughing fit that had left him unable to breath and dependent on Vin and Josiah to get to his room came to him. "So, I won't smoke," he shrugged.
With a frustrated sigh the healer turned to the sharpshooter. "Don't reckon I can get you ta help out here."
"Sorry, Nathan," Tanner said with a wide grin. "Done tried that. Figure it'd be best ta just ride with th' stubborn cuss, and I'd just 's soon have 'm talkin' ta me...little as that is." He laughed as he caught the gunslinger's expression. Larabee had them all right where he wanted them. As usual.
Nathan wasn't ready to surrender yet. "You think you can find her trail now, when Vin 'n Buck couldn't right after she took off?"
"Yeah," Chris said simply. "I've got something that they don't. I've known her for a lot of years, and reckon I can figure her moves easier." He stopped, not looking at the other men. "Alright, so I didn't know her as well as I thought. If nothing else, she might come looking for me if I'm away from town."
"Oh, that's reassuring. I put you back t'gether an' get you on your feet so you can go out 'n get into trouble again."
"Let it come," Tanner said as he swung up on Peso's back. "We're ready this time."
Chris smiled as he pulled himself up on Pony's back. With a tip of his hat to the healer, he said, "we'll be back...when Ella Gaines is dead." And with that the two men rode out of town without another look back. That had been nine weeks and four days ago. There had been no word, no sign since then. The remaining five peacekeepers had taken up the slack and watched over the town. It had not been the same, however. They were without the two men who shared leadership duties; a ship without a rudder in many ways. To compound their problems was the concern that they all felt for Larabee and Tanner. Whether they could admit it or not, all five men were afraid that they would never see their compatriots again.
"Chris... can you hear me?" Buck knelt next to the chair they had placed his friend in. Slowly the blond turned toward the voice that he registered as familiar.
"Buck?" he said softly.
"Buck... we're... we're home?" There was a hint of fear in the usually strong voice. There was also hope.
"Sure enough, Stud, you're home." He placed a hand carefully on his friend's shoulder.
"Home... thank God..." hot tears streamed down his handsome face, something the others were unprepared for.
More used to the overwhelming expression of emotion than the others, Josiah was the first to recover. "Yes, Chris," he said softly as he moved to the man's side and put an arm around his shoulders. "You're home now."
"Vin... where's Vin?" Larabee asked in a quivering voice.
"We're takin' care of him," Nathan said from where he sat next to the tracker on the bed. He was slowly spooning broth into the young man's mouth. Although he responded enough to swallow the liquid, there was no other indication that Tanner was aware of what was going on.
"Mr. Tanner is a bit the worse for wear," Ezra added. He sat on the other side of the bed, gently working at the knotted mass that had once been the tracker's long, curling brown locks. "But the attentions he will most assuredly receive from the women of this town will no doubt put him right soon enough." The gambler remained outwardly calm, in an attempt to make the situation seem more normal for them all.
Larabee had slowly gathered himself, his tears drying. The familiar voices and faces served as a calming force. He looked around, taking in the men he called friends; men he had resigned himself to never seeing again. And one friend for whom he had sold his soul to keep alive.
"So, how far you reckon that bitch could have gotten?" Chris asked as he slowly stretched to ease the cramp in his side.
"Well, me 'n Buck covered 'least 50 miles in every direction. Weren't a sign ta be had."
"Don't make sense. How could she have gotten away without a trace?"
"Don't rightly know, pard. We kept an eye on her ranch for a week afterwards. She never came back." Vin shook his head. "It's been long 'nuff now, woman could 'a got 'bout anywhere."
"Well...maybe this will give us a clue." Chris pulled a leather-bound book from the pocket of his duster. It was Ella Gaines journal. They had brought it back - along with the things she had of Larabee's - when they had brought the wounded gunslinger back to town. Chris had taken the journal as soon as he was well enough to think about it, but as far as anyone knew, he had yet to look at it.
They set up camp, and Larabee skimmed the delicate pages filled with fine script while Tanner fixed dinner for them both.
Setting a plate on the ground beside the other man, Vin said, "anything yet?"
"No... nothing to tell us where she might be," Chris said as he sat the book down and picked up the plate. "Some idea of where she's been, though." His words were delivered in a bitter tone.
"How so?" the younger man asked around a mouthful of beans.
"Buck was right, sounds like she did have her husband killed. Maybe some others, too." He shook his head, a look of anger in his hazel eyes. "How could I have been so blind Vin?"
"Reckon you ain't th' only one she fooled."
"She didn't fool you... or Buck."
"Yeah, well lord knows I'm a great judge a women," Tanner favored him with a wry smile. "Seems ta me I had some trouble seein' things for what they were once upon a time. 'Spite what a friend tried ta tell me."
Chris chuckled. "Seems to me we're both too hard-headed for our own good."
"Reckon so. We best make a pact ta watch each other's back when it comes ta anythin' in a skirt. Next time one of us'll prob'ly get killed." His slow smile softened the picture he painted.
"Think we'll remember next time one of us gets caught by some conniving woman?"
With a hoot, Tanner said, "Hell no. We'll just take off th' other fella's head for buttin' in."
Laughter came and faded. They were quiet then, content to share the evening. Finishing dinner and making certain the horses were bedded down for the night; the men shared a drink by the fire before crawling into their bedrolls.
"N... Nathan?" In a voice barely a whisper the tracker spoke the name.
"Hey Vin," Jackson said softly as he sat on the edge of the bed.
A thin, tentative hand spidered across the quilt and touched the healer. "You... real?"
"Yeah, far's I know I'm real." He smiled as the confusion slowly cleared from the pale blue eyes.
"Yeah, home Vin. You're safe 'n sound now." He picked up a damp rag and began bathing the gaunt face.
"Safe..." he breathed the word. He looked slowly around the shadowy room. "Chris?" Worry clouded his happiness.
"He's sleepin'. Buck took him to his room a couple hours ago. Man was fallin' outta the chair asleep."
Relaxing, the younger man said, "How... long we... been... here?"
"Day and a half."
Vin nodded, his eyes closing.
Jackson watched as the injured man settled back into sleep. "What happened to you, Vin Tanner?" the ex-slave mumbled. They had gained no information as to what tragedy had befallen their friends. Chris still seemed in a fog; he reacted only to certain things. The rest of the time he seemed in a world of his own.
"Riders comin'," Tanner announced, nodding toward a wisp of dust that Larabee had yet to see. Deftly producing his spyglass and sliding it open, the young tracker watched for a minute and then put it away. "Looks ta be seven or eight people...five on horseback, the others in a wagon."
"How soon do you figure before we meet up with them?"
"Half hour, maybe a little less."
"Well, maybe they'll know something."
Vin nodded, though he had little hope. They had been searching for a week without any luck. He didn't argue with Chris, it wouldn't do any good. The man had a single purpose in life right now; he couldn't think about anything else. Nudging Peso forward, he started cautiously toward the knot of riders coming toward them. It wasn't the first time they had done this in the past week. Anytime the two of them had crossed paths with another human being, Larabee would pull out the picture Ella Gaines had sent him, torn to remove his own likeness from the scene, and seek any information they might find. One old man who smelled of cheap whiskey and rotting teeth, had sworn he had met Ella Gaines in a brothel outside Fort Laramie. Except this "Ella Gaines" had no front teeth and a scar across one cheek. That was the closest they had come.
Twenty minutes later they were approaching the riders. This close, they could tell by both sight and smell that it was a scruffy group of 'hiders' that could have made the former buffalo hunter appear to be a society gentleman on his worst day. There was a woman driving the wagon with a younger version of herself beside her on the wagon seat. The third passenger was a young man about JD's age whose appearance quickly led the men to label him an idiot.
Scattered around the wagon were five men on horseback. Two of them would dwarf Josiah or Buck, virtual bears in human guise. The third was about Vin's size; wearing an eye patch and sporting an empty left sleeve. The fourth rider was nondescript, medium in every way and seemingly intact. The last was a boy, hardly older than Billy Travis, who was smoking a weathered corncob pipe.
"Don't look like th' kind a folks a woman like Ella'd associate with," Vin said under his breath.
"That bitch would wallow in pigshit to get what she wants," Chris disagreed. "Reckon these folks would be as easy for her to use as any." With a wave, he aimed his black forward toward the little group, Vin close behind, his hand casually wrapped around the butt of his hogleg.
"Chris?" Buck watched from where he sat near the room's single window, as his friend suddenly sat straight up in bed, his hazel eyes wide opened and wild. Carefully he padded across the Spartan room, approaching the gunman hesitantly. "Chris? What's the matter, pard?"
"Wh-where...where is she?" He was looking around quickly, his face filled with both fear and hatred.
Wilmington sat on the edge of the bed, gently grasping the other man's shoulders, trying to get Larabee to look at him. "Chris, who you lookin' for? Where's 'who'?"
"Where is she? I need to know...can't trust...can't trust her. Need to get...away, get away from here."
"Chris, please son, you've got to tell me what's goin' on. Who're you lookin' for? Where do you need to get away from? Talk to me pard." The man in black continued to stare; looking through Buck as if he didn't exist. "Chris?"
There was no response. The gunfighter slumped into the ex-sheriff's arms, sinking into a restless sleep. The other man slowly lowered him to the bed. He sat watching his friend toss and turn on the bed, still trapped in the nightmares that seemed to rule his life. "Son, when're you gonna be able to tell us what happened to you and Vin? Damn it, Chris, what're you so afraid of?"
"Hello!" Chris called as he rode up to the wagon.
"Howdy," the older woman replied. "You fellers need somethin'?"
"Yes ma'am." Larabee was as charming as he could be. "We're looking for someone. Maybe you've seen her?" He pulled out the torn picture of Ella Gaines.
The woman put out a gnarled and palsied hand and took the photograph. She squinted as if even at this distance she could not make out details. Looking carefully at the woman's image she shook her head and passed it to one of the bear-men who had slipped in behind Chris. "You know 'er Hiram?"
"Ain't sure...Chancy, whut 'bout you?"
The other bear-man took the photo and glared at it, pausing to spit a wad of tobacco near Pony's front hoof. "Reckon she looks a mite like that filly we seen 'couple a days ago over ta Trace Forge."
"Lemme see," one-eye took the picture, nearly ripping it as he pulled it from the other man's big hand. "Yup...Ma, y 'member that woman we seen comin' int' town's we's leavin'? Looked like she'd been through a bri'r patch 'r somethin'."
"What do you mean?" Chris asked with dwindling hope. Ella Gaines was one for making an appearance, he could not see her looking so unkempt as to be described as 'one-eye' had just done.
"Well, she's wearin' this cape that was purty beat up, bottom all ripped 'n such. Had on this kind 'a white dress, but it were all dirty and tore. Hair all kind 'a wild lookin," he held out his hands, waggling the fingers around his head as he continued, "had a bunch 'a scra'ch's 'n such on 'r arms n' legs. Said she'd been in th' hills fer a spell."
"Yep, recall 'r now," the older woman said with a nod. "Figgered she's hidin' from th' law 'r somethin'. You fellers th' law?"
"No ma'am," the gunfighter said, "just looking for her."
"There a re-ward?" One-eye asked.
"No," Chris said with the beginnings of irritation showing in his voice. They were wasting time.
While Larabee was busy questioning them, Vin had been keeping an eye on the little group. He had been around 'hiders' long enough to know that he neither liked nor trusted the majority of them. In his mind they were human buzzards, circling their prey until it was dead or defenseless. Sudden movement caused him to turn; he found the young boy right next to him. He had been so busy watching the adults that he had all but forgotten about the little fellow. As the child eyed his hogleg, Tanner nodded to the boy and coaxed Peso over a few steps. The boy followed, still looking intently at his weapon.
"Kin I see yer gun?" he asked around the stem of his pipe.
"Ain't for young'ns," the tracker said shortly, suddenly very weary of this child.
"Ain't a young'n, an' I got a gun a m' own," The boy hoisted a Navy Colt out of the holster that was wrapped twice around his waist. He pointed it toward the hunter. Vin's senses jumped to the alert...but it was too late.
"Reckon y'all best drop them guns," one of the bear-men said.
Chris turned with a start at the words; just in time to see the other bear-man club his friend across the head with his gun butt, grabbing the slender young man as he slumped, unconscious and pulling him into the saddle in front of him. He pointed his pistol at Tanner's temple. "You wanna wear yer friend's brains on them black cloths 'a yourn, 'r you gonna hand over that gun?"
Larabee hesitated only a second as he looked at his young companion slumped in the big man's arms, blood streaming down the side of his head. With a glare that had withered many men in the past, he slowly disarmed himself, disdainfully dropping his weapons to the ground. One-eye cursed and punched him hard in the gut before dismounting to retrieve the guns.
"Dammit, Lafe," the old woman said. "Ya know y'ain't s'posed ta do nothin' ta that feller. She just said we could do what we wanted ta that'n." She pointed an arthritic finger toward Vin. "Now, c'mon. We's gotta d'liver Mr. Larabee 'fore we can get our money."
Chris groaned inwardly. How could he have been so stupid? He had led them into a trap. Yet another trap set by that bitch Ella Gaines. That had to be who "she" was. Now they were prisoners, and his best friend was injured. Why was it that Ella Gaines kept hurting and murdering those he cared about and he found himself coming back for more?
"Mister Wilmington, I can assure you that I hold in highest esteem your abilities...as a beer swilling, womanizing ne'er-do-well. However - "
"Ain't no howevers to it, Ezra. We got a job to do and this's the best way to do it."
"By walking directly into the proverbial hornets nest? Why...yes...I do believe you're right. What a clever idea..." the Southerner said sarcastically.
"Now look you damn red bird!"
"Fellas!" JD yelled as he attempted to push himself between the two men. "This won't get us anywhere!"
"I agree, "Josiah Sanchez said as he came to stand on the other side of the battling men. "Now Buck, you need to listen to reason. What Ezra's saying makes sense."
"Ezra!" Nathan Jackson bellowed from behind the older man. "Man ain't makin' sense. He's makin' excuses to weasel outta work...as usual."
Sanchez wheeled around and stared at his friend. "Don't tell me you agree with Buck! I can't believe that you're gonna let your prejudices push you to side against Ezra. I thought you had more sense than that!"
"Are you crazy?" Nathan yelled in return. "My sidin' with Buck's got nothin' to do with -"
JD threw up his hands and walked away from the four other men. Returning to the cooler dimness of the jail, he slumped into a chair with a sigh. He wished that he knew where Chris and Vin were, and when they would be back in town. They had been gone for only a week, but already it felt as if they were falling apart. If their two friends, the undisputed leaders of their odd group, didn't return soon, there would not be much for them to return to.
Chris glared at the big men on either side of him, their shotguns trained not on him, but on Vin. They had bound him to his black gelding, his duster arranged so that the casual observer would see nothing amiss. In the meantime they had tied the tracker spread-eagle in the back of the wagon. A filthy, ragged canvas had been thrown over the top to hide their human cargo. Evidently Ella had told them that the gunfighter would not be threatened with the possibility of his own death. He would, however, do anything to keep his friend alive.
They spoke little, and none of it was directed toward him. He spent his time trying desperately to find an opening that would allow him to rescue Vin. The family had been well-trained by the black-hearted bitch who would stop at nothing to own him. They kept him far enough from the wagon that a clean get-away was only a faint hope. The fact that they had used his duster to hide the ropes around his wrists gave him a single advantage that they had not thought of, though. He used that cover to hide his efforts as he worked to free his hands. Chris felt the coarse hemp dig into the flesh of his wrists as he slowly worked his hands back and forth.
'One-eye', riding ahead of him and leading Pony, glanced back from time to time, but none of the men seemed to notice anything. Once again, it was the smallest member, the one so easily overlooked, that stood between the two men and escape.
"Hiram, whut's 'e doin'?" the young boy whispered as he rode next to the man six times his size.
His eyes sliding sideways beneath the stained and weathered hat, the beast on two legs saw the slight movement beneath the black coat. With an evil grin that showed rotten, broken and missing teeth, he aimed at the tarp covered wagon bed and let loose a shot. The trio in the seat jumped at the sound, but Chris was only concerned with the muffled cry of pain beneath the tarp.
"Damn you, you sonuvabitch!" he screamed, straining to get to the big man. "Leave him alone!"
"You best leave them ropes as they is then, mister," Hiram said coldly. Riding to the wagon, which the old woman had pulled to a stop, he yanked back the canvas and motioned Lafe to bring the gunman closer. As soon as the inside of the wagon bed was in sight, Larabee relaxed slightly. A slight trickle of blood ran along Vin's ribs, staining his shirt, but he was still alive and didn't appear too badly hurt.
"Vin?" Chris called out, hoping to coax the man back to consciousness. He watched the younger man stir and mumble something he couldn't make out, but that was all. Then his best friend disappeared from sight as the canvas was thrown back over the wagon. "As soon as I get loose, I'm coming for you...and you'll all die...slow and painful," he vowed.
Unfazed by the gunman's threats, the ugly giant laughed. "That's all well 'n good MISTER Larabee...'cept you ain't never gonna see freedom ag'in. Least not's long's you wanna keep that purty little friend a yers alive.
"Good morning, Mister Tanner," Ezra Standish said with a gold-edged smile. He sat on the edge of the bed when he realized that Vin was having trouble focusing on him. "There, is that better?"
"Ezra..." the sharpshooter said with a faint smile.
"Well, at least your memory is intact," he lay a hand cautiously on the other man's arm. Everything not covered by the man's underwear had suffered from long hours of unrelenting exposure to the summer sun, Nathan had deciphered from the look of Vin's abused flesh. They had been carefully rubbing a salve on the dry, leather-like skin several times a day since Chris had ridden into town with the tracker almost four days ago.
"Drink?" Tanner croaked.
"Most certainly," Standish said with genuine warmth as he poured a cup of cool spring water and helped Vin drink some of it. Lowering the man back to the bed he said, "better?"
"Yeah... th... thanks..." His eyes drooped closed.
The blue eyes, even more vibrant against the sun-darkened skin, suddenly snapped open, darting around the room. "Ch... ris...?"
"Mr. Larabee is resting in his room," the gambler said, with a twinge of conscience. He would not be the one to tell the devoted young man that the man he considered his best friend had adamantly refused to return to the clinic. In fact, they had not been able to coax the brooding gunfighter out of his rented room to go anywhere. Since Buck had taken Chris to his room some 72 hours earlier, the gunman had sat on the edge of his bed, or slept a fitful, nightmare-filled sleep. He refused any attempts by the other men to get him to eat, drink or speak. Even Josiah was beginning to loose patience with the laconic gunman.
"Brother, you are the most stubborn, self-centered hard-ass it has ever been my bad luck to know," the former preacher slammed the tray he had brought Chris' breakfast on, down on the little table next to the bed, coffee splashing from the teetering mug. His blue eyes flashing angrily, the big preacher stood in front of the man in black. "Chris Larabee, I don't know what's going on in that thick head of yours, but starving yourself to death in front of your friends is a poor way to repay them for worryin' about you for two months."
"Don't deserve it."
The answer was so quiet that Sanchez almost missed it. Hearing the pain in the younger man's voice, he dropped to the bed beside him, one hand on the black-clad shoulder. His anger dissipated quickly in the face of the other man's emotional agony. "Don't deserve what, Chris?"
"None of it... friends... caring..." There was a hollowness in Larabee's voice, brought on by the depth of his pain.
"Why would you feel like that?" Josiah hoped that they would finally begin getting answers.
"It's true..." he sighed deeply. "People get too close to me... they die... they get hurt... she'll see to it... I'm... I'm better off dead... and so is everyone around me..." Larabee would say no more, returning to his self-imposed punishment.
As soon as they untied Chris from the saddle, he pushed past the men and strode toward the wagon. Lafe grabbed at him, but he delivered a hard blow to the man that sent him sprawling. Reaching the wagon, he yanked back the ancient canvas. Blue eyes fluttered open to peer up at him in relief. "Chris... ya' okay?"
"I'm fine, cowboy. How're you doing?"
"Head hurts... side hurts... feel like someone's... Christmas turkey... other'n that... I'm doin' fine," he replied with a familiar twinkle in the azure eyes. "Any idea... why we're gettin' such... fine treatment?"
"Well, reckon Ella must have been keeping tabs on us. She sent her new lackeys to make certain we didn't miss her."
The bound man nodded a movement that caused him to pale as pain sliced through his head. "D-damn..." he moaned. "Ain't doin'... that...'gin..."
Leaning over the wagon, Chris gripped the narrow shoulder. "Take it easy pard, just take a deep breath."
"Yes...Pa..." Tanner quipped. He could easily hear the fear, concern and blame in the other man's voice. In his usual way, Vin was going to make certain that he did everything he could to look out for his friend. He wouldn't have Chris blaming himself for any of this.
Chris chuckled at the tracker's comment, but it was cut short when the big man called Hiram pulled him away. He started to fight against the manhandling, but the muzzle he saw pointed toward Vin's head stopped him.
"Yer a quick'n I'll give you that," the bear-man said. "That's good. Yer friend might live a mite longer that way."
Larabee glared upward into the ugly, weather-beaten face, but said nothing. He allowed himself to be dragged to one of the big wagon wheels and bound to it. The young girl came to him; a plate filled with something she claimed was rabbit stew and a dry, grayish biscuit. Chris looked upward toward the wagon bed. "You take care of my friend first."
"Cain't," she said in a voice tired beyond her years. "Ma sez we don't gotta do nuthin' fer 'm, jest gotta d'liver you in good shape ta that fancy woman."
"You want me in good shape; you keep him in good shape," Larabee said with a tone of finality. He turned his head and closed his mouth tightly, making it clear that he would not eat.
The young girl looked fearful, and glanced around. "I don't feed you, Ma's gonna git mad. Please mister, I don't wan' 'er mad at me." She pushed the spoon at him again, but Larabee simply looked at her and turned his gaze back toward the wooden box that contained his best friend. Her head dropping, she turned toward the wizened hag that she feared. "Ma?"
"Hessie, you best be feedin' that feller."
"He won't eat, Ma." The fear was clear in her voice.
Chris almost felt sorry for the young woman. Almost. A single glance toward the wagon strengthened his resolve, however. He had to take back some control over the situation.
The old woman hobbled over to them and glared down at the blond. "You best eat, boy, 'r I'll have Hiram put a deeper hole in yer friend."
"You'll treat him right, or I'll make certain that bitch won't be happy when you deliver me," he said in a voice that chilled the air.
The old woman stared at him for a few minutes, but finally seemed to realize that he would not budge. Turning toward Hiram she said, "Untie that feller 'n bring 'm down here. Lafe, you bring over anuther plate."
Sighing inwardly with relief, Chris watched as the men snapped to and did as she said. As Hiram untied Vin and half-dragged him to the ground, Chris' heart leapt to his throat. He caught sight of the big man's face; there was something in the way he looked at the tracker that frightened the gunfighter.
Hiram dropped Vin unceremoniously near the other wagon wheel and tied him to it. Even bound, he did not trust the two men; his gun remained trained on the younger of the captives. Vin sat listlessly for a minute, his chest heaving as he fought to quell the nausea caused by the sudden change of position. Chris watched, willing the man to look up. Finally, he was rewarded be the sight of two slightly unfocused blue eyes and a slow, crooked grin. They said nothing for several minutes, that unspoken communication unique to their relationship, the only thing they needed. It was only after they had brought Tanner his own plate of food that he broke the silence. Looking at the gristle-filled meat and the watery broth that Hessie offered him, he turned to look at Chris with a sad expression filling his handsome face. "Hell thought we's friends. I'd a rather took m' chances a starvin' ta death."
Chuckling around the mouthful of equally poor food that the old woman was now shoveling quickly into his face, Larabee said dryly, "why should I be the only one to suffer...pard?"
"How's Chris?" JD asked as Josiah ambled into the saloon. They could all see the thoughtful expression on the face of their oldest member. Only the Kid was bold - or perhaps oblivious - enough to interrupt those thoughts so quickly and casually.
"Our friend is a deeply troubled man," Sanchez said as he helped himself to a shot glass and joined the others at the table.
"Well, hell Josiah," Buck said, "that describes his mood for damn near four years."
Not recognizing the comment as a half-hearted jest, the preacher said, "This is different. The deaths of Sarah and Adam broke his heart. Whatever happened to him and Vin while they were gone has broken his spirit."
Buck, JD and Ezra looked at one another. Finally, the gambler spoke up. "Did Mr. Larabee elucidate as to what exactly did happen while he and Mr. Tanner were absent from our little community?"
Josiah shook his head. "The only thing he would say was that it would be better for everyone if he were dead." The statement hit the other men like a prairie fire in high wind. Young Dunne looked on the verge of tears. Standish's shuffling took on a desperate, almost violent aspect, while his jaw tightened in his effort to appear nonchalant. Buck's face drained of every hint of color and he stared hard at his beer.
"Brother," Josiah said to him quietly, "you've traveled this road before?"
"Yeah," Wilmington replied softly. "Right after Sarah and Adam died. He managed to get through what he had to do; hell, he hardly let me help with a damn thing. He built the coffins put the crosses together, built the fence around their graves. Other than helpin' him dig their graves, all I could do was stand there and watch him. Went through the whole thing like he's sleepin'. Then when it was over, we rode into Eagle Bend. He bought a couple dozen bottles a whiskey, rented a room, an' disappeared. Didn't see him for a week. I'd go up to his room about every day and knock. He'd just cuss me out... sometimes throw a bottle at the door." He paused, smiling humorlessly at the others. "Heard later he did send for whiskey a couple more times, but didn't open the door except to grab them. After a week, he staggered out, saddled his horse, and rode out.
"I followed him for awhile, but it was like ridin' with a dead man. Wouldn't say a word, looked at me like I wasn't even there. Finally got so we couldn't take the sight a one another, so we parted company."
The table fell to silence again, this one unbroken for nearly an hour. Then their only words to one another were those of parting as they said their good-nights. JD disappeared into the jail; Buck went to sit with Vin and relieve Nathan; Josiah went to the church. Standing on the boardwalk for several minutes, looking up at one dimly lit window, Standish was lost in thought. Finally making a decision, the conman strode determinedly toward Larabee's room.
They rode for three long days. Very long, hot, wearisome days. Chris never let his guard down, looking for even the faintest hint of an opening that would allow him to free Vin and escape. He found nothing. He continued to assert himself, pushing the boundaries to the breaking point. Vin was allowed out of the wagon for each meal, and given enough freedom to unsteadily walk the stiffness out of his muscles and relieve himself in privacy. It was obvious that he was not feeling well enough to offer much resistance, but just as they did with Chris, they kept the young hunter in check by threatening Larabee's life. Any response that they would not risk their bounty by injuring the gunman met with even stares and the reply that a $500.00 bounty would take some of their disappointment away.
The two friends were able to speak only during meals. Each time they ended up arguing; Vin trying desperately to get Chris to leave without him. "Pard, y'gotta listen ta reason. It ain't gonna do no good for us ta both stay put."
"Told you, I ain't leaving alone. We go together."
"Ain't wasting my time discussing this with you, cowboy. How're you feeling?"
"I'm fine, Chris. Dammit, you gotta listen ta me."
"Been listening. You keep singing the same tune though. Fever gone?"
"Ain't got no fever."
"Had one yesterday. I could see it in your face. You need to drink more water." He turned to the young woman who was in charge of their meals. "Hessie, could you give him some more water, please?"
Looking around to make certain that the others were busy, she brought a canteen from the wagon and allowed the sharpshooter to drink his fill. Tanner nodded and she closed the canteen.
"Thank you, Miss Hessie," he said quietly.
Smiling, the young woman hurriedly returned the canteen and resumed feeding the bound men. They had found that manners went a long way with the girl. Given her treatment by her own family, it wasn't a surprise. If nothing else, at least Chris could work at getting his friend cared for even if he couldn't push it far enough to secure their freedom. Yet.
Chris spent much of his time studying their captors. He had the closest contact with Hessie, Hiram and Lafe. The others he watched mostly from a distance. The older woman, who was referred to only as "Ma" by the motley brood, kept a tight rein on them all. Not even Hiram and Chancy, both of whom dwarfed Buck, Josiah and Nathan, made no move without her word.
Of the two bear-like men, Hiram most often stood guard over the two prisoners. Chancy served as a scout, a guard and a hunter. When not otherwise engaged, he was sitting in the nearest shade, an earthen jug in one beefy hand.
Lafe, the smaller man who had been maimed at some point in the past, assisted Hiram in guarding the two men. When not doing that, he would often disappear somewhere with a whimpering Hessie in tow. Larabee would feel a knot in his gut as he sat helplessly by, watching the girl pulled away from view. He tried not to think about what the man did to her out of sight, but there was little doubt as to what that was.
The young man who rode in the wagon, the one that they identified as an idiot, was typically called "Dummy" by the others. Larabee wondered if he even had another name. He never left the wagon seat without the old woman's guidance. When they camped, he spent most of his time caring for the horses and mules. He even slept near the picket line at night. Chris sensed that the young man felt more at home with the four-legged beasts.
The youngest, who looked as young as Billy Travis but acted older than Josiah Sanchez, was called Willy-Joe. He was given no latitude to enjoy his childhood, and seemed not to miss it. He took his turn at watch, helped hunt for food, and seemed in every way but size the equal of his elders.
The final member of the group though, was an enigma. Chris had yet to witness any interaction between this man and the others. He was always on guard, even carrying his plate of food off to perch on some vantage point. He never came closer to the wagon than ten or fifteen yards during the day, and slept at lest that far away at night. Never hearing a name, he began referring to him as "the Ghost."
But, as closely as he studied the family, Chris could see no weakness that would allow him the chance to get away. And then things became even more complicated.
"Howdy...Buck," a raspy whisper greeted the big gunman as he quietly entered the little clinic.
"Hey there, hoss, how're you feelin' tonight?"
"I say... fine..." Vin nodded toward Nathan, who was sitting nearby reading. "He says... I ain't."
"Well, reckon you best just humor him," Buck said with a smile. "Ya know how bossy he gets when one of us gets hurt."
His deep chuckle telling them that he had been listening, Jackson said, "He ain't gonna help you none, Vin. I done threatened them all with hard times if they let you try to get outta that bed on your own."
With a sigh, the young tracker lay back on the pillows and stared pointedly at the ceiling.
Leaving the sharpshooter to pout, Buck turned to the healer, "Reckon you ought to go get some sleep. I'll look after the boy here."
Standing and stretching his tired muscles, the dark man said, "Sounds good to me. He gives you any trouble, just give a holler. Or, there's some rope over yonder in th' corner. You can just tie him up if you want."
"Nathan!" Vin yelped in protest, not completely certain the man was joking.
With a grin and a wink, the big man left for his nearby room.
Settling in the rocking chair near the window, Buck yawned. He had forgotten what it was like not to be tired.
"How come Chris ain't comin'... 'round?" The worry was heavy in the younger man's voice.
Wilmington sighed. They had hoped to spare Vin the added worry about Chris' state of mind. Now it was clear to the big gunman that he was going to worry even more by not knowing.
"He's... well... he's not feelin' real well," Wilmington hedged.
"What's wrong... with him?"
Buck knew that nothing short of the truth was going to suffice this time. He stepped across to the bed and sat at the foot. Twin blue orbs shone in the lamplight as the younger man waited for an answer.
"Vin, he's havin' a hard time...well, gettin' past whatever 'tis that happened to y'all out there. He's convinced that everything that's happened's his fault. Won't talk about it... just sits in his room."
Tanner groaned and closed his eyes. "He done...ever'thing he could...Buck."
"I figured as much. He did this before. Ain't certain we'll be able to save 'm from hisself this time, pard. Only thing we can do's wait 'til he rides it out I reckon. Nothin' much we can do otherwise."
"Think you can get... him ta come over... here, let me... talk to 'im?"
"I don't know, Vin. I doubt it."
Vin nodded sadly, closed his eyes, and allowed sleep to claim him.
The sun was just reaching for the Western horizon when they arrived at their destination. There, atop a gracefully sloping hill, sat a house almost identical to the one Ella Gaines had lured them to with her damsel-in-distress act. They stopped at the bottom of the hill first, at a smaller, poorer homestead.
Pulling the wagon into the yard, the old woman said, "Hiram, you go on ahead 'n take Larabee up ta th' big house. Untie 'm now; she ain't gonna be happy with them marks as it is. Don't figger we need ta make her any madder. Lafe, you go on up there with him." Looking directly at Chris, she said, "Now, Mr. Larabee, this is th' way things is. That'n," she nodded toward where Vin lay bound beneath the tarp, "stays with us. That way we gotta better chance a seein' ta it that you do's yer tol'. Longs' you min' yer manners, he stays alive. Ya make her unhappy 'r try 'n escape...well, you kin visit 's grave on Sundays."
Chris fought to keep his face neutral, even as his blood turned to ice. "I want to see him."
Nodding toward the men on either side of him, she allowed the gunfighter the chance to speak to his friend. Chris would not entertain the idea that it could very well be the final time. "Vin?" he spoke before the canvas was even removed.
Blue eyes snapped open, staring up at him. "Hey, cowboy." His voice was strained, weary. Chris could tell that the fever was still with him.
"Just wanted to let you know...they're keeping you here. I'm going up the road a bit."
Nodding, Tanner said, "you git then. Don't worry 'bout me." He was giving Chris one final message; permission to do what he could to get away, with or without him.
"I'll see you soon, Vin."
"Chris - "
"Ain't certain how things are going to be now. You take care of your mangy hide. Do what you have to..." just as Tanner was doing, Larabee was giving his friend permission to do what ever he needed to, to survive and get away from their captors. Unable to clasp arms as they typically did, Chris grasped the other man's hand, squeezing it tightly. He couldn't bring himself to let go.
In typical Tanner fashion, the younger man did his best to break the tension. "Hey, Cowboy?"
"You hold m' hand much longer 'n I'll be expectin' a ring on m' finger."
Despite the painful knot in his gut, Chris laughed. "Always did admire that long hair and them big blue eyes," he quipped.
Any further bantering was cut short when both Lafe and Hiram lead Chris away from the wagon. With a final look and a nod, he was pulled away from the friend who had become a hostage used against him.
"Go away," Larabee ordered brusquely as someone pounded unrelentingly at the door.
"It's Ezra," came the Southerner's voice.
"Don't give a damn who it is. Go away."
"No." The answer was direct and to the point. Standish opened the door and entered the room, prepared for anything. What he found was Chris Larabee, clothed only in his familiar black jeans, sitting on the floor in a corner with a half-empty bottle in his hands.
Holding one hand over his nose, Ezra walked to the window and opened it. "Good lord, I don't believe it smelled this gamey in Lucius Stutz's room."
"Get the hell out of here, Standish," Chris growled, favoring the smaller man with a glare.
"No," Ezra repeated, leaning against the wall. "Not until I have spoken my piece."
"Consider it said, 'cause I ain't listening. Get the goddam hell outta my room." He picked up a nearby bottle, this one empty, and threw it at the gambler.
Catching it deftly, Standish sat it on the dresser. Staring evenly at the man in black, he stepped over and stood before him. He sighed heavily and, showing strength that his size belied, he reached down and pulled the other man up by one arm. "Larabee," he said harshly, "you are the sorriest excuse for a man I have ever met. I do not pretend to understand why any of us care in the least whether you live or die, but we do."
Chris leaned heavily against the wall, staring daggers at the other man, but made no move against him.
"While you hide away, wallowing in self-pity, those who have followed you into hell on more than one occasion are being vexed to distraction by your callous and simpering actions. And, the man who, to no one's surprise, offers you the deepest devotion is the one you have done the gravest injury to. Mr. Tanner lies abed, barely able to speak, but shows his greatest concern for your miserable well-being.
"If you wish to die, do it and be done. However, do so alone. Do not take the life of Vin Tanner in the process. I dare say that he has much to offer the world yet. Our scruffy, long-haired savage has a zest for life that is rarely seen in this violent age. I believe that we would all prefer it if you would allow him to remain in our midst." The conman released his hold-out derringer, removed it from its mechanism, and slapped it against the other man's bare chest. "I know that your weapons have been confiscated by Mr. Wilmington and that has left you lacking the resources to end your life efficiently. I offer you my own derringer for your use. I am confident that it will serve adequately to affect your demise. You may linger for some time depending upon alcohol to affect your departure." With a final cold, green-eyed glare, the Southerner turned on his heel and stomped from the room without a look back. The slam of the door echoed off the room's walls. Still staring at where the other man had been, Larabee slid down the wall, folding himself limply in the corner. He turned the small gun over and over in his hand, contemplating the other man's words.
Each step the horses took moved the man in black away from his friend, and he felt yet another knot grow in his stomach; felt any sense of hope dying. He had been an idiot, a pompous fool bent on revenge and self-destruction. In the process, he had condemned his closest friend to a shortened life and a long, agonizing death.
The fact that they had untied him gave Chris little hope. Hiram and Lafe flanked him, their weapons at the ready. Without being told he knew, too, that at the first gunshot Vin Tanner's life would be forfeit. As painful as it was, Larabee knew that he would have to bide his time, keeping both eyes open for any opportunity that might present itself. "Don't give up on us yet," he mumbled to himself, although he saw fever-bright blue eyes as he spoke.
It took only fifteen minutes to reach the "big house" on the hill, but to Chris it was a lifetime. By the time they reached the porch, Chris Larabee had disappeared, leaving behind only an emotionless shell that offered no resistance to his captors. Nor did he offer any response to the woman that suddenly appeared in the doorway.
"Chris!" Ella cried joyously as she ran across the porch and threw her arms around him. He stood passively in her embrace, his gaze focused in the distance. She barely seemed to notice. "Oh, I've missed you so much! I told you we would be together again." She stood back and looked at him closely. "You look tired. How was your trip?"
He glared at her, but said nothing.
"Come on inside," she continued. "I'll have Marta fix you something for dinner." Taking his hand, the woman led him into the house.
He allowed her to pull him through the lamp lit house and guide him to a chair. Without looking, he knew that Hiram and Lafe followed guns at the ready. Sitting stiffly on the wooden chair, he did not even give the suggestion that he was considering any movement. Continuing to stare straight ahead, he resembled nothing so much as a flesh-and-bone statue.
Returning from where she had gone to instruct the cook on dinner, Ella swept up to him with a girlish giggle. "Well silly, aren't you even going to take off your coat?" Receiving no response, she sighed and shook her head. "Poor, poor dear. You really must be exhausted. Here, I'll help you." She took his hat, laying it carefully on the sideboard. Returning to the blond, she tousled his hair and tugged at his duster's sleeves. Finally getting the coat off, she tossed it on a chair and knelt down to kiss him. Taking his hand in hers, she started to kiss it, and then stopped. Turning toward the men in the shadows angrily, she yelled, "What happened to his wrists?"
"He... he done it hisself, ma'am," Hiram stuttered. "We stopped him soon's we seen whut he's doin'."
She leapt across the space and slapped the big man across the face, ignoring the shotgun in his arms. "You fools! I told you that he was to be delivered in perfect condition. No excuses!"
"Yes ma'am," the men seemed cowed, as if they were afraid of her.
Chris watched the exchange with only faint interest. He wondered vaguely what Ella had over the men. Hiram could have easily broken her pretty back with a single action. Larabee knew that whatever held the men in check had to be important, at least to them.
Ella turned back to him. "You really must be more careful, my darling. We can't have you hurting yourself over some ill-advised attempt to leave me again. I've worked far too hard to clear the way so that we could be together again...once again and forever."
He slowly opened his eyes, staring around him in confusion. The sun was just beginning to color the shadeless window nearby. He was sitting on the floor, shoved into the corner of the room as tightly as he could be. He felt something hard in his hand and looked to find Standish's little hold-out weapon in his palm. Suddenly the night before replayed in his mind; Ezra yelling at him, telling him to kill himself. It stood out crystal-clear in his otherwise foggy memory. "If you wish to die, do it and be done. However, do so alone. Do not take the life of Vin Tanner in the process." The words cut through him like a knife. Staring at the little gun, he had to wonder if it wouldn't be the best for all concerned if he just took the gambler up on his offer, and blew his brains out.
A faint sound pulled his attention away from his death-thoughts, reminding him that there had been a similar sound a few minutes earlier; the reason for his waking. What was it? The sound came again. Knocking? It was hardly audible, as if someone were hammering somewhere down the street or something. Then a voice followed the knock.
Oh damn! It was Vin. How the hell could it be the sharpshooter? He wasn't even able to sit up alone. His mind had to be playing tricks on him. Maybe he was still drunk or dreaming even.
Shaking his head, Larabee pulled himself up from the floor and staggered across the room. He'd just have to prove it to himself that Tanner was not at the door, but indeed over in Nathan's clinic, being cared for by the other men. Managing to reach the door without falling over, he pulled it open quickly.
And just as quickly he grabbed for the frail tracker, who had collapsed against the door, even as he knocked and called for his friend.
"Oh, hell Vin," Chris moaned, pulling the younger man into his arms. He turned back into the room, kicking the door closed as he did. Carefully carrying Tanner to his bed, he gently laid the ailing man on the disheveled sheets, pulling the quilt over the emaciated form. "What the hell are you doing out of bed?"
"Had ta come see... if ya's... alright..." he whispered.
Sighing, the gunfighter went to the washstand and returned with a damp rag. Bathing the sweat-covered face, he said, "You shouldn't be worrying about me, cowboy, you've got to concentrate on getting better."
Not seeming to hear him, Vin said, "You okay...Chris?"
"I'm fine, you stubborn fool. Damn it, Vin, who was supposed to be sitting with you?"
"You sure...you look like hell..." wrinkling his nose, he said, "don't smell...too good...neither..."
"Chris... heard ya's... takin' the blame fer... ever'thin' that.... happened o-out there... mean ta make certain that... ain't true. You ain't... are you... pard?"
"Vin, everything that's happened, now and three years ago, all came about because that sick bitch things she owns me. Of course it's my fault. Who else's could it be?"
"Hers... said it yer... self... Chris. She's a... sick bitch... she' ain't right inna head... Chris. This ain't... yer... fault..." Tanner was losing ground, slipping back toward sleep.
Watching the man's eyes unfocus and flutter shut, Larabee whispered, "Yeah, it is. You sleep now."
"NO!" Blue eyes flashed open, bright with anger. "You gotta b'lieve... it... Lar... bee... yer too damn... stubborn... fer yer own good. L-listen ta me, cowboy... this... ain't yer fault..."
"Vin, you're sick. You don't need to be worrying about this right now. I want you to go to sleep now. We'll talk about it all later."
"Ain't sleepin'... 'til you hear... me out." Tanner pushed himself up in the bed, groaning as his body protested any more movement. "Tell me...why you think...it's your...fault. Did'ja make...'r do them things? Kill Sarah 'n Adam? Wh-what she had done ta me? You... make her... do those things?"
"I must have...somehow..." He shook his head. "I don't know how or what Vin, but something I did, or didn't do, it caused her to want to hurt everyone around me. If it weren't for me, Sarah and Adam would be alive. You wouldn't have gone through hell these past weeks. If it weren't for me, she wouldn't have roped all those people into her sick little schemes..."
"You...didn't ask fer...it, Chris. You thought ya's... shed a her a... long time ago. Why'd you leave... her Chris?"
Pulling himself up, Larabee crossed to the window, watching the sun brighten the dusty little town. "Because... because she scared me, Vin. She was wild, always trying to cause some sort of scene. She loved to flirt with any man that came along, acting all sweet and innocent. The whole time she'd be giving me the eye, trying to see if I was getting jealous."
Nodding, Larabee said, "I can't tell you how many fights I ended up in because of her. She'd come on to some guy and wait 'til I got mad enough to call him out. Then she'd stand on the side, smiling while I put a hole in the man...or he put one in me. Vin...I killed men because of her." He rested his head against the warming glass.
"You would'a... ended up... dead 'r somethin'... goin' on like that. You kn-know I'm right... pard. Ya done right by... gettin' a... way from 'r."
"Yeah, this way I wasn't the only person she killed," the man in black said sarcastically.
"Damn... yer a... stubborn cuss..." Tanner shook his head slightly. "Always... gotta be... right, don't you... cowboy?"
Smiling, Chris turned back toward the bed. "In this case I am, pard."
"No... y'ain't. Y'ain't responsible fer Ella Gaines bein' the bitch she... is. Ain't yer... fault."
"Vin, look, we'll talk about this later, okay?"
"Well hell, Chris Larabee... didn't re'lize you's God Almighty!" Tanner snapped.
Taken aback, Chris could only reply, "what?"
"Must be... figgerin' you... gotta be responsible... fer the whole damn world... ever'thing's yer fault. Didn't re'lize ya's that important." He glared at his friend.
Shoulders slumping in defeat, the blond shuffled over to the bed and dropped to his knees next to his best friend. "Goddamn you Vin Tanner. What do you want from me?"
"My word on what?"
"That y'ain't gonna... sit here feelin'... sorry for yerself... gonna quit takin' on... guilt that ain't... yers ta bear. And," he paused reaching out one thin hand and resting it on the other man's shoulder. "Promise y'ain't leavin' me... us... just yet."
Blue eyes bored into his, making Chris ache to run and hide. How could he ask such a thing? Didn't the hunter understand what he was asking of him? How could this scruffy, unkempt mutt put these demands on him? Who the hell did Vin Tanner think he was? Then he looked deeper into those eyes, wise beyond the number of years they had watched the world, and knew. Vin understood exactly what he was asking of him. And he meant to wait 'til hell froze over if need be to get that promise. Dropping his head to the mattress with a heavy sigh, Chris nodded. Then, reaching into his pocket, he retrieved the little derringer he had put there earlier after the stubborn bounty hunter had collapsed into his arms. Pressing it into his friend's hand, he said only, "Reckon you best keep this for now, then."
Fear flashed across Vin's face, but he quieted it, and replaced it with a smile. "Reckon I'll do that."
Wrapping his fingers around the little gun, he let his eyes drift shut then. "Gonna... rest a... minute... then I'll... go... back..." he was asleep.
Straightening the quilt around him, Chris pushed the always unruly curls away from the younger man's face. "Yeah, you rest, cowboy. Reckon you've earned it."
Vin had forgotten what it felt like to be comfortable and warm. He had been a prisoner of the hiders for at least a week, although he wasn't certain that he had the days right. He had tried to keep track by scratching a tally mark on one of the rough wooden poles that made up his tiny prison, but he was beginning to suspect that he had either too many or too few. He spent his nights huddled in the tiny prison that reminded him of nothing as much as a miniature stockade from the war. His walls and ceiling were hardwood poles while his floor was the damp earth. He had never minded sleeping on the ground, he had done it often enough, and found a comfort in the feel of the earth beneath him. But the other times he had the benefit of clothing to keep him warm. Now he had only his drawers, and they gave little comfort against the cool nights. At least they had allowed him that dignity after the first couple of days. When he had first been pulled out of the wagon they had stripped him of every stitch of clothing, saying that they knew he would never run off without his clothes. They certainly didn't know him well. If he had to run buck naked all the way back to town, he would just to get away from the crazy family.
Only he knew he wouldn't run back to town. He'd run in the other direction; toward Chris and that damnable woman who had instrumented everything they had endured since the third anniversary of Sarah and Adam Larabee's deaths. He knew that Chris would do the same if he could get away from her. He worried that Larabee hadn't already come down the hill in a blaze of fury to get revenge on the hiders who had become Ella Gaines accomplices. Not because he thought that Chris might have opted to save his own life, that thought never even crossed the young hunter's mind, but because he feared the blond's safety. He had no idea as to what his friend was having to endure at his former lover's hands, and it left him with a bad feeling in his gut that nothing could cure.
A sound drew him away from his thoughts and he looked toward the house, worry etched deeply in his azure eyes. He could see a figure walking toward him in the shadows; a hulking human form that staggered toward him. It was Hiram, he could have told that without seeing even his shadowed outline; it had been Hiram every night since he'd been held at the little hard scrabble farm. After they had all eaten, the big man would stumble out, already drunk enough to pass out, and bring Vin his allotment of food for the day. Usually it was little more than the scraps from their table, and little enough of that. The first two or three days Tanner had ignored his aching stomach and left the food where it lay. Usually during the night he would hear the scurrying of little feet and knew that field mice or 'coons had come to carry away the meager meal. After several days of no food, healing from his injuries, and being made to work in the field all day, he had succumbed to necessity and ate whatever was delivered. It was nothing compared to what would happen later, after the others had gone to bed. The big man would sit, leaning against a nearby tree stump, watching the young hunter. At first, Vin had assumed the man had been told to guard him. Such was not the case, and he found that out soon enough.
The man had not raped him. Not in the physical sense. But it hurt no less for that fact. After the lamps had been dimmed inside, the big man would unlock the cage, and crawl inside. The first night Vin had fought back as hard as he could, and had been beaten unconscious for it. He had regained his senses to find the big man touching him in a way that brought the taste of bile to his throat. He had lashed out once again, and had again been beaten. Three times that night he had been the recipient of the big man's rage. He still fought, but the beatings, along with everything else, had weakened him far more than he wanted to admit. He had finally surrendered as much of his dignity as he could live with, and filled his mind with images of what he would do to the bastard when he was free.
After the bastard had sated himself, he would stumble back into the house, always certain to lock the cage behind him. Vin would huddle in the corner, trying his best to put the memories of what had just occurred out of his mind. He knew it was impossible; he would probably never be able to rid himself of them for as long as he lived. Still, he tried. A short time later, he would hear more footsteps, softer and lighter, approaching. The smaller cowboy who had never spoken in their presence would step from the shadows and slip a warm wet cloth through the wood bars. Vin would try and scrub the feel of Hiram's hands from his body, giving up only when the cloth turned cold. Laying it back outside the bars, he would find it replaced by a worn blanket. He would huddle beneath it until just before daybreak. Sometimes he would know when it was removed by his benefactor, other times he would awaken to find it gone.
Vin roused from his nightmarish memories at the sound of the tin plate being slipped into his cell. Pulling it to him, he hurriedly ate the bitter scraps he found there, the meager amount barely taking an edge off his hunger. He saw Hiram take his place nearby and raise his ever-present jug. Tanner wondered abstractly if the man ever ate, or just lived on the moonshine in the earthen container. If so, it would go far in explaining his actions. The young man sighed when all too soon he had retrieved every single morsel of food from the plate. Reluctantly, he knew that he could only stall the inevitable for so long. The big man would come for him regardless of whether he signaled that he had finished. With a shaking hand, Vin pushed the plate back to the other side of the bars. He watched the big man rise up from the ground.
Chris turned at the sound of someone entering the room. Ella floated in on a cloud of swirling white and cream, yet another one of her elegant gowns. She was smiling, a sign he had come to recognize as meaning that she was in her own little world once more. It had taken him a couple of days to understand how to read her emotions. When she came in like this, Ophelia in petticoats, then she was convinced that they were married and living a fairytale life. When she came in wearing dark clothing, or more of a straight-laced outfit, then she was the Ella he had thought he knew. She would talk to him of ranching and horses, even acknowledging the fact that he was being kept in the fine house against his will. Tonight, he would be dealing with the demented princess.
"Good evening, darling! How was your day?"
He simply stared at her, unwilling to enter into her fantasy.
"Oh, are you being petulant again this evening, my dear husband?" Her smile turned into a pout. "Why am I being punished this time? Chris, I just cannot understand why I am made to bear the brunt of your moods. If you had a bad day out on the ranch, please tell me about it, but don't treat me so coldly. I have done nothing to deserve it."
"You know what you've done, you damned bitch," he growled under his breath.
"CHRIS!" She cried out his name, then sobbed openly and hysterically for several minutes. As always, no one came to inquire as to why she was upset. The man in black doubted that anyone cared enough to look in on them. And as always, her theatrics diminished quickly, leaving her to drape herself wanly on the fainting couch, staring at him with those big dark eyes that he at one time thought were beautiful. Now, he saw only the depths of hell in them.
"If you're not going to be a gentleman, then I am going to leave," she cooed.
"You know where the door is, and you've got the key," he said in emotionless tones.
"You don't mean that. You don't want me to leave...do you?" She ascended on him, her slender arms wrapping themselves around his waist.
Chris stood rigidly, staring over her head at a spot on the wall. It was the only way he could manage to suffer through her attentions without throttling her with his bare hands. He kept his mind on Vin, looking for ways to get away that would allow him to rescue his best friend without risking his life.
"Chris?" She was looking up at him, pain and sadness in her eyes. "Chris, why don't you love me tonight?"
"I've never loved you, Ella," he said honestly.
"Damn you!!" she screamed, slapping him across the face, scratching him with her long nails along his cheek. Again and again she slapped him then, balling up her delicate hands, she began beating him with her fists. He stood stock still, his eyes averted, staring at that spot on the wall, not even registering the blows. She attacked him until she ran out of energy then, panting and crying, she ran from the room. Chris continued to stare at the wall.