Disclaimer: This is a work of fan fiction, and is not intended to infringe on the copyright of CBS, MGM, The Mirisch Group, or anyone else, for that matter. I do not claim the characters, concept, or setting of The Magnificent Seven, but the story is mine. The only profit I receive from this is the enjoyment of writing it, and since that's about the only profit I get from my job, there's no point in suing.
Notes: This story follows "Honor" chronologically, and makes a few references to it; nothing important, really, but reading "Honor" first might be a good idea if you like things done in order. If not, well, the story's below; enjoy!
Warnings/Ratings: PG-13, maybe, for violence and language; partially beta'd, but completely proofread.
Chris Larabee leaned against a wooden post outside the saloon, scanning the street absently as he waited. The sounds of music and laughter spilled out through the swinging doors along with the smell of smoke, sawdust, and stale beer. All in all, the open air of the street was at least marginally more pleasant, although Chris had spent enough time in saloons in recent years to have become nearly immune to their less pleasant aspects.
Today, though, he was waiting for someone who had recently begun to avoid the saloon, or in fact any places more inhabited than a bathhouse in the middle of winter, so he had decided to hang around outside until his quarry wandered by. Wandering seemed to be all his quarry was good for lately. Wandering around town, out into the countryside, back into town looking more miserable than when he'd left. Vin Tanner was not a happy man, and Chris intended to find out why.
The gunslinger couldn't--or wouldn't--call many people friend anymore. Those few that he did, he still didn't allow very close. He knew all to well the price that caring deeply about someone could cost a man. Somehow, though, from the moment he'd seen Vin, when their eyes met across a dusty street, a pact had been made between the two. They'd never met before, yet they knew each other. Chris had known, as well as he knew it about himself, that Vin couldn't let an innocent man be hung, that Vin intended to stop the cowboys any way he had too. The only question in Vin's mind at the time was whether or not Chris would help him; it was a question Chris read and answered with a glance and a nod, and a strange partnership had been born.
From that point on, he'd known he could trust Vin with his life. What was much more disconcerting was the feeling he kept getting that he could also give Vin his friendship and trust, two emotions he rarely bestowed on anyone these days. Even Buck, whom Chris had know for more years than he cared to remember, was kept at a safe distance where his loss couldn't tear Chris up again. Vin was different, though. Chris had recognized something--his own pain, perhaps, or his need to restore as much order to the chaotic world he lived in as he could--in the former bounty hunter that had convinced Chris's heart to trust him before Chris's head could say no.
If it'd been any one of the others who was so obviously restless and unhappy, Chris probably would have let him work it out for himself, or else expected another of their team to help the one in trouble. They were already finding their closer ties within the overall loyalty of the group. Nathan and Josiah finding a common ground in their need to heal others, Buck "adopting" JD as if he were a stray puppy in need of a home, and Ezra--well, Ezra was a mystery, but he'd begun to prove himself after his desertion in the Seminole village, and he seemed to move effortlessly from one group to another, neither quite fitting in nor completely left out.
That left Chris and Vin as either partners or on their own, and neither had been willing to let go of that odd connection they'd felt upon their first meeting. To have someone he could trust without question, someone who could take care of himself if Chris wasn't able, was something that Chris had needed more than he'd ever admit to himself, and no matter how often he told himself that Vin was just a good man to have around in a fight, he knew that their bond went deeper than that.
That same bond was what told him that Vin was in trouble now. Something had the ex-buffalo hunter staring morosely at the horizon and finding flimsy excuses to ride out of town for hours at a time. When he came back, he'd be restless, completely unable to sit still, spending as much time as he could outside, but even then not content. Vin was an outdoorsman by nature who always seemed happiest when he didn't have walls around him. This was the first time Chris had seen him not respond to fresh air the same way other men responded to a shot of good whisky, and Chris wanted to know why.
As his eyes roved over the street, they locked on a lone figure ambling toward him, sawed-off shotgun hanging loosely from one hand. The usually quick-moving man with unfailingly polite manners now moved slowly down the street, all but ignoring the people that he passed, not even bothering to tip his hat to the ladies. Chris watched, and a mixture of concern and anger over the need for concern filled him until he had to turn away. He might acknowledge their bond, but he didn't have to like it, and he certainly didn't want it. Not when it meant the possibility of new loss.
He had turned back by the time Vin reached him, his face settled back into its usual, slightly sardonic smile.
"Buy you a drink, cowboy?" he asked quietly, prompting a faint smile from the younger man and a slight inclination of the head that indicated agreement. The term had become something of a joke between them since facing down Lucas James and his men. Using it now, though, only reminded Chris of the change that had come over Vin since that time. The quietness that had once been confidence and reserve was now a tension, almost a desperation that had Chris nearly as on edge as Vin was.
The two men entered the dark, cool atmosphere of the saloon. It was a welcome change from the dust and humidity of the street. Inside, several of the working girls were gathered at the bar. Not many customers came in that early in the day, and the piano player seemed to be performing as much for his own enjoyment as for his audience's. The bartender was polishing glasses disinterestedly, his primary focus on the impromptu poker practice gong on in the back of the room.
Ezra was there, at his usual seat, but having been unable to convince anyone to play with him for money, had resorted to teaching JD some of the finer points in gambling. The kid was finally able to get around enough to even make it to the saloon. For a while there, that had been questionable. Within the past couple of days, though, Nathan had allowed him out of bed. When that didn't reopen the gunshot wounds or make him pass out, allowed him to leave the room and go for short walks.
Buck had apparently appointed himself as JD's keeper. He'd followed the kid everywhere, making sure he didn't overdo, to the point where JD was starting to look a little hassled whenever Buck came near. Now, the two older men were arguing over a particular obscure point in poker rules, and JD was simply sitting there, looking half-amused and half-lost in the private little world he'd escape to in order to heal.
Chris acknowledged them with a nod and headed toward the bar for a bottle and glasses. Vin went back to claim their customary table toward the back, not too far from where Ezra was dealing the cards. When Chris joined him, he took a glass, poured, and gulped back a shot of whisky a bit faster than Chris was used to seeing him drink.
"Thirsty?" Chris asked dryly.
Vin gave him a perfect mirror of his own sardonic grin. "It's hot work, defending the town from all these desperadoes."
"Which desperadoes would that be, the ones we got rid of last week, or the ones that are probably going to be on the stage tomorrow?"
Vin grinned lazily and poured another drink. His attention drifted back out the door, not to focus on anything in particular, Chris was sure, just to stare off into the horizon.
"You thinking about Tascosa?"
Vin blinked, drawn back abruptly into the saloon. "Tascosa'll keep for a while." He paused, took a drink, continued softly, "I hate having it hang over my head, though."
"Another week or so, the judge'll be back. We'll head out then."
Vin didn't answer. His eyes were caught by the horizon again, and Chris was left behind.
The early morning air was just on the cool side of humid and the dust that usually swirled on the streets was weighted down with heavy dew. Vin walked his big black toward the edge of town, enjoying the quiet that, for once, pervaded the streets. Most times, the noise and smells of too many people in too crowded a place closed in until a man couldn't breath and just had to get out into the open for a while.
It was a feeling the others didn't understand. Even Chris thought his restlessness was due to the bounty on his head. While that certainly didn't help much--he didn't like the lingering feeling of unfinished business that followed him around--his problem was really much simpler. He had a bad case of what an old buffalo hunter he once knew had called "cabin fever." It came upon him from time to time, the urgent, almost overwhelming need to get away from people and places that stank of people, to find somewhere so open and clean that it was hard to remember that people even existed. That need had a grip on him now, so he had decided to ride out into the country for a day or so and try to get his head on straight again.
Not that it had worked in the past. The last several times he had ridden out, he'd come back just as uneasy as he'd left. He'd never managed to get far enough away, or be gone long enough, that he could ease the tension that had grown in him. One problem or another kept coming up--a hell-raising cattle baron trying to tear up the town, the kid getting shot, a couple of teenage would-be bank robbers whom Josiah had ended up putting to work polishing his pews--until Vin was afraid to leave for fear of what might happen while he was gone, and was certain that if he stayed, he'd lose his mind.
Since he'd given his word to protect Four Corners, he had a responsibility to stand between its citizens and trouble. Even more importantly, he'd tacitly given his word to the other men he worked with to protect and support them, and he couldn't abandon them any more than he could the town. His conflicting needs were tearing at him like coyotes at a buffalo carcass, shredding his soul into jagged pieces. He was doing the only thing he could to fulfill both needs: riding out for a time to get away from the town, then coming back to help his friends as they needed it. It was a solution that didn't truly satisfy anything.
Still, he breathed a sigh of relief when he cleared the town limits and could strike out across open country. Almost from that exact moment, he could feel the muscles in his back loosening, the tightness in his chest vanishing, and his thoughts clearing. He urged the black into a faster gait, enjoying the rush of wind against his face. This was how it should be, no buildings to block a man's view, no people clamoring for his attention or advice, just him, his horse, and all of nature to explore. Chris and the others would have to handle the town for a while. He had nothing on his mind but riding as far as he could go.
The sun had risen from the horizon to just past the center of the sky when he finally stopped. This was as secluded and natural a place as he was likely to find. A small, nearly dry stream carved its way along the bottom of a gentle, grass-covered hill. While a few scrawny trees dotted the landscape from time to time, most of the view was completely clear and unobstructed for miles around. Vin dismounted and ground-tied the black, then sat down against a comfortable rock, took off his patched slouch and hung it on his knee, and leaned back to let the sound of the wind and water empty his mind completely.
It worked for a while. The tension eased out of him slowly, as he was able to simply be for a time. It felt good not to have anyone depending on him, no Chris asking for advice or JD getting into trouble or Ezra watching them all like he wanted to believe that it was possible to be loyal to someone, but just couldn't be completely convinced. They were his friends and had all risked something for him at one point or another. He couldn't let them down. He just needed to get his head back together, get to where things weren't pressing in on him so much, where he could think again and trust himself to back them up.
He'd found, as a buffalo hunter, that wide open spaces were enough to hold off the demons for at time, but now it wasn't just his own demons he was dealing with. He ran his fingers through the grass, not noticing as they unconsciously clenched and tore the stalks from their roots. He was part of a team, now--a action he'd promised himself he'd never take again, knowing the price--and their problems had become his. One, in particular. . . he closed his eyes and was on a dusty street . . .
//. . . a beautiful blonde woman stood, staring in frustration and horror as the wagon carrying the bound black man and its surrounding guard rode toward the cemetery. Gripping her rifle determinedly, she took off after the mob. Vin watched, and admired her courage, and knew he could no more let her stand alone than he could let that man be hanged for no reason.
He turned and went back into the store. Yes, there were the shotguns, hanging on a rack near the back of the store. He grabbed one along with some shells. It felt so much more natural in his hand than the broom ever had. Going back out to the walk, he checked the mob's progress as he loaded the shotgun--he'd have to hurry if he wanted to do any good.
Movement across the street caught his eye. A hard man, dressed all in black, with a faint, sardonic twist to his lips and a long acquaintance with hell in his eyes, was watching Vin's actions calculatingly. Their eyes met, and that fast, Vin knew everything he needed to know about this man--that he could trust and respect him unquestioningly, that, stranger though he was, this man knew him and understood him as no one had in a long time--and a glance, nod, and smile sealed their promise to back each other up and put a stop to the injustice that was happening down the street.//
If Vin had known exactly what pact he was entering into, he might have hesitated. Chris had needed someone he could trust, someone who knew hell as well as he did and had survived it intact, someone who could anchor him while he fought the external battles that kept coming at them. He'd found Vin, but Vin's armor was only so strong and was hard pressed to withstand the attacks of his own demons as well as Chris's.
Now, with space and time to let it happen, his own hell was threatening to close in on him, and he knew of nothing to do but sit back and let it happen.
The noon stage made it into Four Corners by one o'clock, leaving the townspeople pleasantly surprised as to how early it had arrived. Aside from its relative promptness, there was nothing remarkable about the cargo on the stage. Buck and Ezra had made it a point to be present when the stage arrived, but saw no one getting off that seemed likely to cause trouble. Two cowboys disembarked first, accepting their saddles from the driver, and headed immediately for the saloon. A middle-aged couple followed them. The woman looked around and shuddered as the man rubbed his hands together as if he couldn't wait to get started reforming the town.
"Easterners?" Buck asked dryly.
"Undoubtedly. I'm sure they are here to sample the rigors and thrills of the Wild West," Ezra drawled. "And, of course, make a profit off the local yokels while they're at it."
Buck grinned. "Two weeks? I'll give you ten."
"Ten days, and make it fifteen. The wife is very unhappy about the dirt and stench."
"It's a deal."
The final passenger was the most innocuous of all. Once huge, the man who stepped off the stage was shrunken in on himself and moved with a slow limp, one arm hugged to his chest. His hair was grey, but still retained spots of its original black. His face was lined with sun and pain more than with age.
"If that's what he's after, he got off in the wrong town."
The man limped slowly into the hotel, and the stage pulled off toward the stables.
"So, you feel like another game of poker?"
//It could have been September or October. He was only sure that it was some time in the fall because it wasn't as hot as summer and the rains had started. He hadn't been there more than a few weeks, he didn't think, because he wasn't sick yet and he still had some memory of what life had been like before.
Now, life was rain and heat and bugs, crowded with so many men trying to retain their humanity in the face of so many who'd lost theirs. There was never enough food, and the only water was so filthy it'd taken him a day to work up the courage to drink it, but the lack he felt the most was the complete absence of space. The stockade had been built for 10,000 at most. It held close to 30,000 now, and more seemed to come in every day. At times, he felt as if he couldn't breath; at times, he understood how some men could get so desperate as to attack their fellow prisoners.
He'd lived his life in wide open spaces, glorying in the freedom that open country provided, and had always drawn his strength from that freedom. Now he, like the other men, was faced with the terror of depravation and imminent death, the knowledge of betrayal by those they'd fought for, and it wasn't such a great step from that despair to the complete abdication of all his beliefs.
He'd been young and healthy when he arrived, though, and still idealistic enough to think that he could hold on to his principles in hell. More importantly, he had Jed, who was strong enough to get both of them through. After all, he'd gotten them this far in the War. He could get them through for the few weeks they'd be there until the promised prisoner exchange.
"You doin' all right, buddy?" Jed's warm Texas drawl was like a shield from the horrors around him, and he looked up at the lanky sergeant with a smile that didn't fit with his surroundings.
"I'm fine, Sarge. Just wish this damn rain would stop."
"Me too. Never thought I'd miss the egg-boilin' heat we'd be gettin' back home, but at least it's dry heat." Jed settled down beside him and held out one side of his coat for him to crawl under. The coat was a valuable commodity, one that Jed had already been in two fights to defend. Jed shared it with him, though, and the knowledge of that caring kept him warmer and more hopeful than any garment ever could.
"Any word on whether we're gettin' food this evenin'?" he asked. God knew there'd already been several times when the whole prison had done without, and others when food had been delivered, only to be grabbed by one or more of the gangs that had formed among the population. The question of whether or not they'd eat was one of the few things that broke up the monotony of the long, rainy days, that and the fights that broke out periodically as one of the gangs moved on another, or on one of the unallied prisoners.
"Guards say yes. They got a shipment of taters and beans in this mornin'." Jed looked at him worriedly. "You hungry?"
"Nah. Just curious." It wasn't exactly a lie. He was hungry, but so was everyone. It was a condition of life in the prison. He wasn't so hungry that he couldn't bear it anymore, which was what Jed really meant.
They waited for the food to arrive, passing the time by talking quietly about little things, home and memories from their campaigns and what they'd do when the War was over. When the wagons bearing the food did finally come, they jumped up quickly and hurried to the central courtyard where it was routinely left. Anyone not moving quickly enough would be left hungry. Sometimes, if the regular prisoners moved too slowly, the gangs would grab the wagons and they'd be the only ones fed, so it was vital that they be in the courtyard when the food actually arrived.
He grabbed some of the food--two wooden bowls partially filled with stew and a large hunk of bread--while Jed stood guard over him and made sure no one challenged him. They went back to the tiny space against a wall that they'd claimed as their own to eat. The flavor of real food, however watered down, was amazingly invigorating, and he finished it with an enthusiasm he'd never have believed that he could feel in such terrible conditions.
Nights were the worst. They had to sleep, but sleeping meant an increased threat of being attacked. Jed was big and mean enough to have scared off many of the potential predators, but there was always another out for revenge or to prove himself, and it was rare that they made it through the night without any disturbance. They both made it a point not to be separated at night if they could help it. They even went together to the latrines if it was necessary, even though that meant they might lose their little corner of the prison.
That night shouldn't have been different. Something happened, though; he never knew what. He'd been sleeping, Jed's back against his for warmth, and the next thing he knew, Jed was gone and someone was kicking him in the ribs.
"Get up, runt, you've got our space." Every other word was punctuated with a kick, so that he couldn't have gotten up if he'd wanted to. He tried to roll over, to protect his stomach at least, but another kick knocked the wind and strength out of him and left him all but paralyzed. "Don't got nobody to protect you now, do you, runt?"
"Hey! Get away from him! Damn it . . . " the sound of fists on flesh interrupted the shouts, " . . . he's just a kid. Leave him alone!"
Finally, the kicking was over. Someone grabbed him, but these hands were gentle as they pulled him onto a warm lap, and a familiar drawl whispered in his ear, "It's okay now, buddy. I've got you. I'm sorry."
One of the hands brushed the damp hair out of his face and then trailed down to slide between his arms and ribs, feeling for damage.
"I shouldn't have left you. I was just goin' over to see about Clayton--he's got that fever, and hadn't had any water all day, but I should've woken you up or waited till mornin'. You're gonna be all right, though. You're gonna be just fine . .."
He simply lay still and breathed for a while, as much trying to get over the shock of being awakened in such an abrupt and painful matter as he was trying to deal with the pain of being kicked. Finally, he was able to sit up.
"We'll have to move. They'll be back," he said a bit breathlessly. "Sorry, Sarge. Shoulda heard them comin'."
Jed patted him on the back. "Not your fault, buddy. And we're gonna stay right here. We're not lettin' some low-life scare us away. This is as close to a home as we got. We're not lettin' no one have it."
"Sarge . . ."
"We're soldiers, buddy. We don't run away." Jed patted his shoulder again. "We may be in hell, but we're not gonna let them change us. We know what's right. We'll stand our ground."
He squinted up at Jed's face, trying to see his expression. Did the sergeant think he was a coward?
Jed's warm smile came through his voice.
"You're thinkin' smart, buddy. If it was just you or me on our own, it'd be tough to stand on our own. We'd still do it, 'cause we don't back down on what's right. But it'd be hard. That's what friends are for. We stand together and watch each other's backs so it's easier to do what's right."
He leaned back against the wall behind him and winced a little. "Okay, Sarge. We'll be waitin' for them when they come back. They won't catch us by surprise this time."
"There you go, buddy. Think like a soldier." Jed's voice was quietly approving, as it had been every time he had done something right throughout the time they'd known each other.
"You think we'll get out of here?"
"I know we will, buddy. We stick together, we can do anything."
It was a longer night than usual. He was sore and on edge, and Jed kept jumping to his feet to prowl around the edges of their space. He was finally drifting to sleep, though, when he heard Jed's sharp hiss, "Hostiles coming, buddy. Heads up."
He stood up slowly, straining his eyes to see where the threat was coming from.
"Ya shouldn't've messed with us."
The cold whisper came from the darkness, but he couldn't tell where it originated.
"Think ya can challenge us and get away with it?" A spine-chilling chuckle--that was all the warning they got. As a huge shadow rushed toward Jed, he felt a thrill of fear and dove forward himself. Jed grunted--so softly, it couldn't be anything important, it couldn't--and the shadow was gone with another laugh. He didn't really care, though, because Jed was falling to the ground. He felt his own heart stop for a second as he dropped to his knees beside the stricken sergeant.
"You all right, buddy?"
"I think you're hurt, Sarge. Let me see . . ." He ran his fingers down Jed's shirtfront, searching for tears or dampness. Jed reached up to catch his hand, stopping him.
"Don't worry about it, buddy. Nothin' you can do. Just get us back against the wall in case they come again, all right?"
He lifted Jed's shoulders and pulled him back toward the wall, then sat down with the sergeant propped against his chest, the same way that Jed had held him earlier. Morning was a long time coming.
The first streaks of dawn revealed more than he wanted to see--a long, open wound from Jed's chest to his stomach that was still seeping blood. Jed's face was a sickly greyish-white, and his breath was coming in harsh, shallow gasps.
"Oh, god, Sarge, why didn't you tell me it was this bad?"
"Nothin' you could do."
"I'll get help--some of the gangs got contraband medicines, I'll get some somehow . . . "
"No . . . "
"I'll get some, Jed. They always want more people to join them, more bodies to scare the other gangs with. I'll work a deal . . . "
"No! They're not men anymore, buddy. They're animals. You're better than them."
"You're hurt bad, Sarge. I gotta get something for you . . . "
"No, buddy, listen. You just do what's right, hold on to that, like I said." Jed coughed and clutched at his hand.
"What's right is getting you fixed up . . . "
"Nothin' you can do for me, except remember what I told you. You're a soldier, and a decent man. You don't let them change you. I'll be with you, no matter what. Friends watch each other's backs, right?"
"Sarge . . . "
"You're a soldier, buddy. Don't let them take that from you. Don't let them win . . . " Jed's voice faded out, and a few minutes later, all that was left was a soft sobbing.
He was a soldier, as Jed had said. He did what was right, even though he didn't know why he was doing it anymore, except that he couldn't disappoint his sergeant. But he didn't allow himself to trust anyone the way he'd trusted Jed. It was easier to do what was right when he didn't have to worry about anyone else getting hurt.
Time passed--days filled with survival, nights filled with nightmares both imaginary and real, as the gangs targeted him as someone they couldn't intimidate. After a while, prisoners began to be transferred out, and like a good soldier, he took his opportunity and escaped. He took the nightmares with him, though, and only found some relief from them in the wide-open spaces of the plains.//
Dell Walkin limped painfully down the walkway, his boots making an odd thump-scrape, thump-scrape on the wooden surface. The sound was a constant reminder of his reason for being in Four Corners, as if he needed any more reminder than the endless pain that he had endured for years. Strong, healthy cowboys, and even more insultingly, prissy shopkeepers, brushed past him on the walkway as if he wasn't there, expecting him to give way--he who had once been a mighty, virile, awe-inspiring giant of a man. Once people on walkways had given way to him, yet now they barely even noticed he was there. That humiliation was almost worse than the constant pain.
Years of searching had made him as canny to the ways of civilization as he had been to the ways of the wilderness. He had discovered early on that the people in a town most likely to know the comings and goings of everyone in the town were the bartender and the stableboys. It was mere coincidence that he walked in the direction that led him to the stable first. It was a lucky coincidence, though. For only a fifty-cent piece, the stableboy was more than willing to give him the information that Vin Tanner had left early that morning, riding west, that he went out on such rides frequently, for no purpose the stableboy could figure out, and most importantly, that Tanner had some tough friends whom no one in town wanted to cross.
Walkin was a hunter by trade and by inclination. He knew how to plan and execute a trap that was all but unavoidable. The friends complicated things, of course. A smart hunter didn't take on a lion in its den, where the rest of the pride could back it up. No, a smart hunter found the lion when it was more vulnerable, when it was alone and not expecting trouble.
Walkin's best bet was to ride westward himself--not too far, just so that he could find a good vantage point from which to watch the approach to town. If he caught Tanner there, when his guard was down because he felt safe so close to home, then the element of surprise might be enough to compensate for Walkin's lack of physical strength.
Walkin hired a horse, made a quick stop by the general store for supplies, and set out toward the edge of town.
Chris found Buck and Ezra in the same place he'd seen them earlier that day, lounging in front of the sheriff's office, idly watching the traffic as they played two-hand poker. JD and Josiah had joined them at some point. Chris noted absently that the kid was still looking much too tired for the level of activity he'd performed recently--a walk from his room to the sheriff's office shouldn't be exhausting. Josiah was watching the whole scene with his usual amusement. He seemed to get a huge kick out of the younger men's antics.
"Any of you seen Vin?" Chris asked.
"Not since early this morning. I saw him riding out when I was working on the roof of the church." Josiah replied.
Riding again. Chris sighed.
"No one's seen him come back yet?" He glanced at the sky. The sun had started going down some time ago, leaving the sky a brilliant red-orange. Unless Vin was planning to stay out all night, he should have been back before this.
"He'll be back when he's ready." Buck took two cards and grimaced. JD, looking over his shoulder, grinned wickedly.
"Well, if you see him, tell him I need to talk to him, okay?"
"Will do." Buck frowned at JD, glared suspiciously at Ezra, then appealed to Josiah for help. "He's cheating me, isn't he?"
Do what's right. Vin opened his eyes abruptly, shaking his head to settle the memories back into their proper places. Jed had been a decent, honorable man who'd considered two things to be vitally important: friendship and doing what was right. He'd made a lasting impression on his younger charge. Vin would have done anything for the sergeant who'd mentored him throughout the War, and had engraved everything Jed said into his heart like it was gospel truth. He'd tried, even as he got older and was able to look back on Jed without the veil of hero-worship to blind him, to follow his friend's wishes, to always do what was right.
That was part of his trapped feeling now. He couldn't do what his head told him was right--solving this bounty problem--without doing something his heart told him was wrong. He couldn't abandon the men who were counting on him. Yet, at the same time, he couldn't commit completely to them, knowing as he did how such commitment could end.
It exacted a high price, friendship. Jed had paid the ultimate price for it, even though Vin hadn't proved himself worth the sacrifice. He hadn't managed to save Jed, hadn't even attempted to get him help--would he fail again with these men? If Chris were in trouble, would Vin have the courage to help him? How was Vin supposed to choose what was right, when he had two conflicting claims on his attention?
More than anything, he wanted to just pack up and run, head for the open country where there was no one or nothing to claim a part of him. The one thing he knew for sure, though, was that to run from his problems would be wrong. If nothing else, Jed had taught him that. The best he could do for now was to go back and try to balance out the forces pulling on him until he could figure out which was the right one to follow.
Vin mounted up and rode back reluctantly, his mind still lost in the past. He'd let the memories flow over him--hadn't had much choice, really. Once his ghosts decided to visit him, there wasn't much he could do about it. It was hard to get his mind back to the present, and he certainly hadn't had time to find the peace he needed, but he couldn?t stay away any longer. If anything happened while he was gone . . . .
Lost in thought, he didn't realize anything was wrong until an exploding pain sent him into the dark.
Dell Walkin viewed his handiwork with pride. Time was, knocking a man out, taking him to a secluded place, and tying him up wouldn't have required much thought or effort. Time was, he wouldn't have had to doubt his own physical ability or stamina. That time had passed long ago, though, and the reason for its passing was now right where Walkin wanted him--helpless, soon to be hurting, no longer the strong, confident man he'd been a short time ago. Walkin was going to take from him the same things he'd taken from Walkin.
Walkin winced and rubbed at his chest. That was where the pain was worst, where the jagged log had pierced and nearly killed him. His twisted leg and bad shoulder were almost negligible in comparison. The strenuous exercise he'd just put himself through wasn't helping the pain, but it would be worth it when he saw the look on Tanner's face, saw the matching pain in his eyes.
A soft grunt from Tanner signaled that he would soon be awake. Walkin took a moment to check his preparations. They were in a secluded canyon not too far from town. Walkin hadn't wanted to exhaust himself transporting his prisoner before he had a chance to exact his revenge, so he'd taken time to scout around as he had waited for Tanner to ride by. He'd found the perfect spot in the canyon. It was close enough that he could carry Tanner there easily, yet well hidden in the maze of other canyons that riddled the area.
Tanner himself was tied to a large tree with rawhide that'd been wet when Walkin first applied it. As it dried in the sun, it should shrink to provide Tanner with some very satisfying discomfort. Not that that would be enough. Walkin had two sharpened knives, his big Bowie and a smaller filleting knife, his revolver, of course, and--as an added bonus--a rattlesnake had wandered by while he was waiting for Tanner to wake up. When he'd seen it, Walkin had known exactly how he was going to finish things off. He was ready. It was time to get this show on the road.
Tanner blinked himself awake slowly, looking around in obvious confusion. Walkin just waited. He was good at it by now, and knew he had all the time in the world. He intended to enjoy every minute of this experience. Finally, Tanner's eyes focused on his captor.
"W- Walkin?" He swallowed dryly. "Dell? I thought you were dead."
Walkin snorted. "'Course you did. Not many men could have survived that fall." He chuckled. "I did, no thanks to you, but not many could have."
Tanner shook his head, wincing at the pain from the cut on his head. "You were dead. You fell . . . you couldn't have survived, no one could."
"Must have been a comfort to tell yourself that, Tanner. You didn't bother to climb down and check, though, did you?"
Tanner blinked again slowly. The dazed expression on his face was good, but not nearly the look of absolute pain and longing to die that Walkin wanted. He pulled out the Bowie and went to kneel beside Tanner, lowering himself carefully to the ground and keeping the weight off his bad leg. Almost gently, he tilted Tanner's chin back with the point of the knife.
"You didn't climb down, my friend. You left me there, with a goddamn log sticking through my chest, bleeding and choking on my own blood for days until some old Mexican found me. You left me there."
Tanner started to shake his head, then apparently thought better of it as the knife dug into his skin. "Wasn't any way to climb down. That ledge wasn?t stable, that's why you went down when you rode over it. If I'da tried to go down there, I would've just ended up on top of you. I thought for sure you was dead."
Walkin chuckled mirthlessly. "You were my partner. You should have checked." He let the knife trail down, leaving a satisfying track of red behind it, and smiled at the pain in Tanner's eyes. It was so little, yet, but it would grow. It would grow.
Chris stomped into the restaurant, scanning it quickly for members of his team. Nathan, Buck, and, of course, JD were seated at one of the tables, and as Chris moved closer, he had to smile. The two older men were griping at the younger one about his eating habits again, and JD was listening with a less than patient expression, opening his mouth occasionally to try to get a word in, then closing it when it became apparent that he didn't have a chance.
"You know you gotta eat more than that, now." Nathan was saying, pointing his fork accusingly at JD's half-empty plate. "You lost a lot of blood. How do you expect to get better if you don't eat?"
"Yeah, if you think we're gonna wait on you hand and foot forever .. . " Buck chimed in, his ferocious glare not fooling anyone except, perhaps, JD.
JD spotted Chris heading toward them and a look of intense relief crossed his face.
"Chris, have you found Vin yet?" he asked with the air of a man in desperate need of a change in topic.
Chris grinned in spite of his growing concern. The kid had annoyed him when they first met, so cocky and determined to get himself killed, but as his enthusiasm had begun to be tempered with a touch of good judgment, Chris had developed a fondness for him.
"Not yet. Guess he hasn't come in?"
"You think he's in trouble?" Buck immediately dropped his teasing tone and turned serious.
"He can take care of himself." Chris straddled a chair. "He would have said if he was planning to stay out all night, though."
"What do you want to do?" Nathan asked.
"Wait till morning, I guess. If he's not back by then, we can think about going to find him."
Vin leaned back against the tree, testing his bonds for about the hundredth time. They felt like rawhide. No way he was going to be able to break them. His wrists were getting torn up, though. Add to that the cuts Walkin had given him and the bruises where he'd been hit with the butt of Walkin's rifle, and he could think of times when he'd felt better.
He still couldn't believe Walkin was alive. They'd been partners when he first started working as a buffalo hunter. In fact, Walkin had taught him much of what he knew about the trade. When Walkin's horse had slid over the side of a cliff in a heavy rainstorm, Vin had tried to go down after him, but the side of the cliff had nearly give way again, and he'd had to give up. Walkin had seemed dead, though; he'd had a branch puncturing his chest--how could anyone survive that?
Vin tested his bonds again. Still nothing. Walkin was taking a break, leaning back against a rock and sipping from a canteen as he eyed Vin thoughtfully. Vin almost hadn't recognized him. He'd gone from a huge giant of a man to a shrunken, wizened gnome, though obviously strong enough one to haul a man around. God, what kind of pain did a man have to go through to change that much? Dell had never been the calmest of people. He'd lost his temper literally at the drop of a hat and held a grudge forever. Still, Vin couldn't believe what was happening.
"Dell? This is crazy. You know I didn't leave you down there on purpose. If I'da known . . . "
"Sure, Tanner, make all the excuses you want. You didn't have to lie down there for days, cursing your partner who didn't even try to help you. You didn't have to see yourself turn into some sort of monster that people won't even look at on the street." He pulled out the knife again and slid it down Vin's cheek, grinning gleefully when Vin sucked in a sharp breath. "And you won't have to, either, 'cause you're not gonna spend much time walking anywhere, after this."
Sometime during the long night, Vin began to lose track of where he was and who he was with. Sometimes it was Walkin inflicting the pain, accusing Vin of leaving him to die. But other times, it was one of the gang members from the prison camp, and it was Jed that he'd abandoned. Either way, the blows and cuts kept coming, and his thinking got fuzzier as the blood flowed faster, and he couldn't remember anymore if he was guilty of what he was being accused of, but he thought maybe he was, since he had to have done something wrong to be hurting so badly, and he really wished it would all just stop. Where was Jed? Jed would stop it. But Jed was dead, and he'd left Jed to die, so he deserved to die too.
No, not Jed. Walkin. Walkin was the one he'd left--but he hadn't done it on purpose, had he? No, he hadn't liked Walkin that much, partner or not, but he wouldn't leave a man to die if he knew the man was still alive.
"Tanner? You still with me?"
Walkin again. He'd been talking sporadically all night, going on about what he was going to do, why he hated Vin so much, what kind of hell he'd been through at the bottom of that cliff. His voice was like background noise, hard to concentrate on over the ringing in Vin's ears.
"Dell? Why . . ." he gasped finally.
"Why? Why? So you know what it feels like to have a friend betray you. So that you have to lie around waiting to die, and know that your partner could stop it, but didn't. I want you to go through everything I did, Tanner, only you're not going to survive. You're not strong enough, not strong like I was."
Friends. But Walkin wasn't his friend. Jed was his friend, and Chris, and Nathan, and . . . . No. No more friends, not after Jed. No one else he trusted that much. No one else that could leave him . . . .
"Pay attention, Tanner. Don't want you to miss anything."
A sharp, stinging pain on his chest brought him back. He tried to remember what they'd been talking about.
"Didn't know . . . you were alive . . . "
"Does that matter now? Does that really matter now?" Walkin laughed, and the pain started again.
It was barely dawn when they started out. Buck and JD stayed behind. The kid was in no condition to ride anywhere, and Buck refused to leave him alone again until he was able to take care of himself. The others had split up, the better to cover the maximum amount of ground. They had a general direction to search in--Vin almost always rode west in his wanderings--but there was still a lot of ground to cover.
Chris tried to tell himself they were making a mountain out of a molehill. Vin was very capable of caring for himself, probably the best of them all in the wilderness. He'd only been gone overnight, and Chris didn't have any real reason to suspect that something was wrong. No reason at all, but he still knew. Vin was in trouble.
Chris had been riding for more than an hour when something--a sound, or maybe just an instinct--made him turn toward a particular canyon he'd discovered once while out doing some riding of his own. It wasn't much of a canyon, as canyons went, but it was rather isolated, and might be a place that Vin would choose if he needed privacy to think. He rode in carefully, not wanting to startle his friend if Vin really was there. In fact, if Vin was there and was all right, Chris intended to leave without making his presence known. He didn't want Vin to feel like he was being checked up on.
"You're not screaming yet, Tanner. I screamed. I screamed for you, for anyone, to help me--but you'd already rode on, hadn't you?"
The voice came from further ahead in the canyon. Chris pulled his horse up sharply and reached for his rifle. That hadn't sounded good.
"Well, let's try something different, okay?"
The canyon walls made sounds echo. Chris couldn't tell how far ahead the voice was. It could have been just around the bend or a long way into the canyon. He had to slow down, as much as his instincts said to hurry. He couldn't risk stumbling into something he wasn't prepared for. If Vin was as much trouble as it sounded like he was . . .
The sharp report of a branch breaking under his horse's hoof sent Chris's hand flying for his gun. The sounds from ahead stopped abruptly, and Chris urged his horse forward faster, suddenly frightened.
At some point, the long night had faded away, becoming morning. Vin had only become aware of it after the fact, lost as he was in an overcrowded prison, hunting desperately for his sergeant, knowing that if he didn't find him soon, Jed would die.
How Walkin got into the prison, Vin didn't know, since he was pretty sure Walkin had told him once that he hadn't fought during the War. But Walkin was there, had joined one of the gangs, and was trying to keep him from finding Jed. Walkin kept talking about leaving him to die, but it wasn't Walkin in danger, it was Jed. Now Walkin had disappeared again, but there was a rattlesnake crawling across the ground toward his foot, and he was pretty sure he should be worried about that, although all he really wanted to do was find Jed.
A movement caught his eye, and he squinted blearily--when had it gotten so hard to see?--in that general direction. Jed? No, Walkin, but why was he creeping around like he was hiding from . . . Chris? Had Chris been captured too?
Vin closed his eyes, wishing desperately that he could think. Something was really wrong here, if only he could focus . . . . Walkin. Walkin was supposed to be dead, but he wasn't. He'd captured Vin and tortured him in some sort of twisted attempt at revenge because Vin had left him to die, even though Vin was pretty sure that'd been an accident. The prison was long ago, Jed was long ago, but Chris was real, and now, and Walkin was sneaking around behind him and would kill him if Vin didn't warn him, and there was a very strange sensation slithering up his leg. Oh, yeah, the snake.
Vin looked down at the snake with a calmness born of exhaustion and shock. It was a rattlesnake, no doubt about it, and if Vin moved the amount it would take to call out a warning to Chris, it would probably strike. Telling himself to focus, damnit, that's your friend out there, he raised his eyes to where Chris was moving toward him.
Vin didn't know what had tipped Walkin off. Chris was creeping silently and carefully from one rock to another, but Chris's attention was on Vin, and Walkin was making his way unnoticed to a vantage point behind the gunman. Vin had to do something, couldn't let Jed--Chris--die. Jed had said that friends had to take care of each other--except Chris couldn't be his friend, he couldn't have friends anymore, 'cause it hurt so bad when they died--only he couldn't let Chris die, friend or not, he had to stop it somehow, if only to make up for not saving Jed.
Chris made his way carefully between the rocks, searching for Vin's captor. Vin himself looked terrible, leaning up against a tree in a manner that suggested his hands were tied behind him. His long hair was sticking to his face with a combination of sweat and blood, and more streaks of blood covered him from head to foot. His clothes were in shreds, and his head was lolling limply back against the trunk of the tree. What had Chris's heart in his mouth, though, was the rattlesnake that was slowly meandering up his friend's leg. One wrong move on Vin's part could cause the snake to strike, and Chris wasn't sure that Vin was aware enough of his surroundings to know not to move. On top of that, somewhere around here was the bastard who'd done this--someone Chris fully intended to find and deal with, as soon as he'd taken care of Vin.
Vin stirred, and Chris closed his eyes for a second, praying to a god he no longer believed in that the snake wouldn't strike. He wasn't close enough to even attempt a shot, not when most of the snake's body was draped over Vin's legs. Maybe he should throw caution to the wind and make a run for his friend, although he'd hoped he could find Vin's captor before he revealed himself.
One last look around, then he'd make his dash--but all hell broke loose before he could put his plan into action.
Vin suddenly jerked upright, shouting, "Chris, behind you!"
Chris whirled, almost too late, and shot as much on instinct as knowledge that anyone was there. Only his own sharp movement kept him from being shot himself. The other gunman wasn't as fast, though, and went down with a cry that mingled with Vin's.
Chris was torn, but there really wasn't a choice. If he didn't get rid of the other gunman, it wouldn't matter if Vin had been bitten or not. Chris didn't take the time to be cautious, though. Gun cocked, he ran for the rocks above him where the shots had originated. Vin's captor lay sprawled on the ground, his gun only a few feet from his hand. He stared defiantly up at Chris, a sneer curling his lips.
"Go on and kill me, cowboy. I'm all but dead, anyway, and you're too late to save your friend. I got what I wanted, it doesn't matter any more."
The sound of the shot echoed off the canyon walls.
The rattler had slithered away, but it had already done its damage. Through one of the tears in Vin's jeans just below his knee, Chris could see the red, angry-looking puncture marks of a snakebite. Chris knelt beside his friend and swiftly sliced the rawhide binding his wrists, then used it to make a tourniquet just above the bite. Vin moaned softly, blinking at Chris in confusion.
"Easy, there, cowboy. Looks like you had a rough night." Chris grabbed the Bowie knife that was lying on the ground not too far away and used it to cut away more of the jeans. "I'm gonna have to put something on this bite, okay? Just hold still for a minute."
"Jed? Let's just move this time, okay? It's not worth the fight."
"Sure, Vin, whatever you say." Chris pulled out his whiskey flask, poured some directly on Vin's leg, then poured the rest onto the ground next to them. He'd heard of people using mud to draw out the poison of snake bites, and he knew the whiskey would help some, at least. Maybe the two together would be twice as good. If not, well . . . Vin was a strong man, he might be able to ride out effects of the poison. Weakened as he was from loss of blood, though--and he'd lost a lot, from the looks of the ground where he was sitting--it would be touch and go.
"Sarge?" Vin's voice had grown more anxious. "You gotta let me get you somethin'. It don't matter if it ain't right, you're gonna die without somethin' . . . "
"Nobody's dying here, my friend. Just take it easy, you're gonna be fine."
Vin started shaking, reaching out clumsily to grab at Chris's arm. "But I didn't watch your back, Sarge. I messed up. You're gonna die if we don't . . . " He tried to pull himself up, but didn't have the strength. "Sarge, you gotta let me do somethin', please . . . "
Chris wrapped his bandana around the mud poultice to keep it in place and moved to check the rest of Vin's wounds. They proved to be mostly bruises and cuts that wouldn't have been that serious if there hadn't been so many of them. It was the sheer number of wounds and the loss of blood, coupled with the snakebite, that had Chris scared. He knew as much as any man in a country without doctors about treating wounds and snakebites and illness, but he didn't know if his knowledge would be enough to keep Vin alive. Vin was already going into shock. His skin had turned clammy and he was shivering and breathing heavily. Worse, he didn't seem to know what had happened to him. He was lost somewhere in a past that Chris didn't know enough about to deal with.
"Vin, listen to me, okay?" Chris looked around, spotted a canteen that proved to have some water in it, and began to use that and a strip off his shirt to clean away the worst of the blood. "You've done fine here, and no one's dying. I just need you to stay with me, all right? Don't go wandering off somewhere that I can't follow, hear? I can't help you if I don't know where you are."
Vin blinked at him, then said through chattering teeth, "C-chris? W-w-what . . . w-where's Walkin?"
"Dead." Chris grinned wryly. "He called me a cowboy. I hate that."
"S-shoulda no-known b-b-bet-ter." His eyes drooped, then flew open again fearfully. "Y-you ok-kay? N-not hit?"
"I'm fine. Thanks for the warning."
Vin flinched and started shivering more violently. Chris pulled off the poncho Josiah had given to him and used it like a blanket, wrapping it around the younger man gently. Vin was in bad shape. The blood loss and shock from the snakebite were taking their toll, and he was only able to hold on to lucidity for a few minutes at a time. Chris didn't know if it would be better to try to get him back to town or to leave him where he was until he was a little stronger. Town was less than a half hour away, straight across country, maybe a little more if they went slowly to avoid jostling Vin's wounds. On the other hand, Vin was weak and had lost a lot of blood. Riding around on the back of a jouncing horse was the last thing he needed at the moment.
In the end, it was the complete lack of supplies that decided him. Chris had nothing to make bandages or sterilize the cuts with, nothing to bring down the fever that he could feel emanating from Vin's body even now. Even more importantly, the odds against Nathan finding them in this little canyon were pretty huge, but he'd be coming back to Four Corners soon to check in and would know more about how to make Vin well than Chris could ever hope to. Provided Vin survived the ride back, the best thing for him was to get him back to town.
That proved to be harder than Chris had originally anticipated. Vin was only marginally aware of what was going on he kept calling Chris "Jed" and apologizing for something that Chris didn't really understand. Worse, he was as limp as a rag doll, completely unable to even sit by himself. The trees nearby were too scrawny to provide branches worthy of making a travois out of, so Chris had to resort to putting Vin on his horse, mounting behind him, and leading his own, more tired horse by the reins. Walkin's animal he left after making sure its reins were secured so that they wouldn't catch on anything. It wasn't so far from home that it couldn't find its way, if it was so inclined, and Chris had bigger things to worry about.
Vin was a dead weight in the saddle before him, fever-heat rolling in waves off his skin, and every so often he'd moan in pain or call out to Jed or even to Chris as if he thought they were in danger, but didn't seem to hear when Chris tried to reassure him. Chris felt a strange feeling, almost of pain, in his heart as Vin called out, but almost frantically turned the feeling to anger. Couldn't Vin manage to take care of himself even for such a short time on his own? Chris didn't need someone else who was dependent on him, someone else he had to care about . . .
Whoa. He reined in that thought quickly, focusing on the familiar landmarks around him as they drew closer to Four Corners. He didn't care, not about any of them. Liked them, maybe, even respected them, but it would no more matter to him if they got hurt than if a total stranger did. As for right now, they were almost home. He'd turn Vin over to Nathan's care and get back to his job of keeping the peace, and quit worrying about people who were perfectly capable of handling their own problems. It was the only way he'd be able to stay sane, and if that didn't work, well, the judge would be back soon to release them from their duties, and they could all go their separate ways.
Early morning. The light came from an odd angle, but he was beginning to be accustomed to seeing that when he woke up. For the first time, though, it occurred to him to wonder why it was coming from such a strange direction.
It hurt, but he managed it. Levering himself up, he surveyed his surroundings, and was only slightly surprised to find himself lying in Nathan's bed, covered in bandages, with his leg propped on several folded quilts. He grinned faintly. If they all kept this up, Nathan was going to have to rent a second room just to have somewhere to sleep at night.
Already exhausted, he leaned back into the pillows, letting his eyes drift shut again. Tired and sore as he was, he also had a sense of peace that had been missing for some time. He had very few clear memories of the time since Walkin had captured him. Mostly it was a blur of pain, sharp stings on his arms and chest, an agonizing throbbing in his leg, a pounding in his head, a desperate thirst that wouldn't be satisfied.
Intermingled with those memories, though, was a clear recollection of someone holding him, warming him, giving him water and trying to ease the pain, a soft voice telling him he was going to be fine. In his mind, the identity of his savior varied. Sometimes it was Jed, sometimes Chris, but returning lucidity told him that it had to have been Chris. It really didn't matter.
Somewhere in the strange, fever-inspired clarity that had descended on him in his delirium, he had realized how important it was to have someone taking care of him, caring about him, when he was hurt. Knowing that had enabled him to accept that comfort was all he'd had to offer Jed when the sergeant lay dying, and allowed him to let go of the guilt that had plagued him over his imagined betrayal of his friend. He'd always known that Jed had forgiven him. Now he felt like he could forgive himself.
Putting that ghost to rest had eased some of the pressure. Not that he didn't still have a bounty hanging over his head that he'd have to deal with, but he had less doubts that what he was doing, staying and supporting the other men on his team, was right. Somehow knowing that he hadn't completely screwed up with Jed gave him confidence that he was making the right decision now.
The sound of boots thudding on wooden stairs interrupted his thoughts just as he was about to drift off to sleep. Chris walked in the door, his usually impassive face even less expressive than ever. He crossed over to the bed and eyed Vin appraisingly.
"Have a good nap, cowboy?" Without waiting for an answer, he brushed his fingers across Vin's forehead. "Fever's gone, finally. You want some water?"
Suddenly aware of just how thirsty he was, Vin nodded, then swallowed dryly as the room spun a little faster than he was comfortable with. Chris seemed to read his discomfort from his expression because he waited until Vin had his stomach under control before helping him sit up enough to sip from the cup Chris had taken from the bedside table. After lowering Vin gently back to the pillows, he sat down in the chair next to the bed.
"When you're feeling better, you're gonna have to tell me what that was all about. Man carries a grudge like that, it must have been something interesting."
Interesting. Vin would have smiled if he'd had the energy. Chris did have a way with words. No, it wasn't interesting, exactly. Just another story of a betrayal that was, in its own way, both as real and as imaginary as Vin's betrayal of Jed. Another ghost he'd have to live with. He blinked wearily at the man sitting beside him. At least this betrayal was somewhat balanced out by something good--when the time had come, he hadn't betrayed Chris. Maybe that would be enough to quiet the ghosts for awhile.
"Why don't you go back to sleep, buddy. You can tell me the whole story when you wake up."
As his eyes closed for good, he felt a hand on his arm, patting gently, and knew that, even if the ghosts weren't quiet, he had a friend to stand by him and help him keep them at bay.
Chris sat, watching the younger man sleep, wandering what the hell he was trying to do to himself. He'd promised himself that he'd put some distance between himself and Vin, yet here he was again. Well, come tomorrow, he'd make sure someone else took over the job of checking on the bounty hunter, but for now . . . he'd noticed that Vin seemed to sleep more quietly when Chris was there, probably because he was still mistaking Chris for "Jed," whoever Jed was.
Vin did need his rest in order to heal, and it was quite peaceful up here away from the bustle of the town. Tomorrow he'd send someone else to take care of Vin. Tonight it wouldn't hurt to sit here just a little longer.