by Joan Curtin
RATING: Strong PG-13. Warning: rough language, violence, semi-graphic
descriptions of wounds and medical treatments. And a fairly high rating on the Smarm-meter.
DISCLAIMER: The characters used are the property of MGM and Trilogy. No financial or creative rights are claimed to the characters from the
Magnificent Seven television series.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: Thanks to Sarah B, and Sara TerBeek for beta-reading and their kind and helpful suggestions. And to Carolyn for her encouragement.
RATING: Strong PG-13. Warning: rough language, violence, semi-graphic descriptions of wounds and medical treatments. And a fairly high rating on the Smarm-meter.
DISCLAIMER: The characters used are the property of MGM and Trilogy. No financial or creative rights are claimed to the characters from the Magnificent Seven television series.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: Thanks to Sarah B, and Sara TerBeek for beta-reading and their kind and helpful suggestions. And to Carolyn for her encouragement.
Chris Larabee sat before his small fire and listened to the wind whistling outside his shack. Whistled plenty inside, too, with all the gaps in the walls that still needed filling and the poorly framed windows that he had never gotten around to repairing. The wind picked its way through the chinks with mournful sighs like a melancholy ghost haunting the small room. There was little enough joy here, and on this night, little enough peace. The bottle of whiskey in front of him was half-gone, and he felt as cold-stone sober as he had when he’d begun drinking, with only a raging headache to remind him of his indiscretions. He had come out here alone, and not even Buck had argued with his need for solitude. Buck knew what this day was, and he respected Chris’ rage, grief, and hurt. There had been a time not long ago when he would have scourged everyone around him with his misery, but that much at least, had changed. He had ridden out of town with two bottles his saddlebag, and had come here to mourn his dead.
He stared at the whiskey, his green eyes dulled and shadowed. Lord, this wasn’t what Sarah would have wanted for him, but he did not know how to move on without her, did not know how to give or accept kindness, or recognize love anymore. His humanity was gone to ashes, and the scars of that burning would never fade. He reached out and grasped the bottle, drank two more deep swallows, and then flung it into the fire. The residual alcohol flared with a sharp, intense light, stabbing at his eyes. He laid down his head and cried, and when he was done with that, and felt as used up and dry as the desert at noon, he staggered to the bed in the corner and collapsed.
The same lonely wind that haunted Chris Larabee whispered to Vin Tanner. Like Chris, his solitude was a matter of choice, but unlike Larabee, there was no melancholy in it; just the need for a simple man to enjoy a peaceful night beneath the stars. Vin sat with his chin propped on his drawn-up knees, watching the flames dance. He could hear Peso moving restlessly, and figured that some small desert creature was making the gelding skittish. Peso was ornery and cussedly stubborn, but at least he didn’t give a man any lip. Vin smiled slightly, thinking of the other peacekeepers back in Four Corners.
They’d all been mighty edgy of late; a combination of the coming winter, too much work, and too close company between them. Even Buck, the most even-tempered of men had taken to sniping at the others -- something Vin suspected was caused by his worry over Larabee. Buck had finally admitted that this was near the anniversary of Sarah and Adam’s deaths -- and didn’t see how the man could live through that without his grief scourging everyone standing within an mile of him. So by a tacit agreement they had split: Chris retreating to his shack where he could only cause damage to himself, Vin to the desert and peace; Nathan to his clinic, Josiah to the ruined chapel outside town. Ezra to his cards, and JD to Nettie and Casey’s. Buck alone, had stayed on the job, claiming that with everyone else gone to ground, he’d finally have some space to stretch out.
Peso seemed to have settled, and Vin was warm, fed, and relaxed. He sat back against his saddle, and looked at the stars overhead. Chanu and the people had a hundred legends about each one it seemed, and they were all mighty pretty. Then Mary had read a few stories to him one day as he was practicing his letters, and he had discovered new legends that were as startling and lovely as any he had heard. Funny how stories and legends got made, he thought drowsily ... might even make a few of his own someday. Maybe Mary would like a poem about the stars ...
He slept. And woke to the cold touch of a gun at his throat.
His eyes flew open wide, but he could not see beyond a dark shadow looming against a starry sky. He lifted his hands slowly, wondering that they weren’t shaking from the force of his heartbeat alone.
“Listen, pard,” he whispered, feeling the gun pressing against his Adam’s apple, “All I got is this saddle and a mighty ornery horse, so if yer of a mind t’take him, I won’t stand in yer way ...”
The shadow didn’t move, didn’t speak, just pressed that gun barrel harder against Vin’s throat until he gagged with the force of it, and the darkness overhead and the darkness gathering at the edges of his eyes blurred into fathomless night.
He came up from that darkness, feeling consciousness returning one sense at a time: first sound -- the crunch of stones beneath a boot heel, the hiss and crackle of a fire, a faint metallic clang of iron striking iron. Then smell -- a musty, unpleasant scent near his face, a drift of acrid tobacco, horse. Touch. The bite of gravel against his back, a trickle of perspiration down his neck, the rasp of fabric rubbing against the stubble on his cheeks. He opened his eyes and saw nothing. He tried to move, and discovered he had been bound at wrists and ankles, and that a hood covered his face. Shit ... hog-tied and helpless. Seemed like the sins of his past had finally come home to roost. Never thought to go out like this. Whoever it was had done a fine job of stalking him ... Indian quiet and fox-clever ... and malicious.
“Hey --” Tried to get his captor’s attention, and then wished he hadn’t. A hard kick to the base of his spine sent a shock of pain fizzing along his backbone, numbing his arms and hands, and jolting pain into his neck. Things went downhill from there.
Vin had lived with the Commanche, had survived the savage Civil War waged on the frontier, had seen men tortured, and carried on his own body the scars of punishments that brought him to screaming awareness in the middle of the night. But he had always known his tormentors, been able to look into their eyes and believe that as inhuman as their actions were, they had human motivations -- greed, rage, hurt, revenge. That this nameless, faceless demon in the night could inflict pain for no other reason than to cause pain, made it much worse. He had nothing to focus on, no way to see if they were ready to leave him alone when they realized he wasn’t going to break; or that he did not know the answers to their questions, or just got plain sick and tired of bein’ mean.
The blindness was disorienting. He could not protect himself, and his adversary was fiendish clever at taking him by surprise. He could stand a beating, he figured, and he did, though by the time it was over, he doubted there was an inch of skin on his body that wasn’t bruised. And Lord, he hurt! After much too long a time, there was a respite, and Vin breathed a small laugh of relief. He musta worn the fella out, and he was feelin’ pretty good about that until he was seized by rough hands.
There wasn’t much that scared Vin. Being held down was his own private terror, raising demons that he didn’t know existed. He drew in a breath and bowed his body, fighting with all the strength left in his wiry frame. His sudden motion caught his captor off-guard, and for a brief, hopeful moment, Vin thought he might be able to fight, even tied as he was. That hope lasted for about five seconds before a hard clap on the side of his head brought the darkness back.
This time it was the touch of cold air on his skin that drew him to awareness. His aching body was stretched out face down against the dirt. His shirt had been cut from his torso. He thought if he could just be still, that perhaps they would leave him alone; get tired of waiting, and consider him carrion. They were too clever for that. He heard them approach, heard the sound of their breathing and smelled the sweat on their body. They stood over him, and he felt sick and light-headed with the anticipation of fresh agony.
They stepped away -- no, they paced away. A slow, measured retreat. He heard the sound before he felt the pain. A whistle and a pop, then the fiery lash like lightning against his skin. He screamed -- he thought he screamed, but he couldn’t draw enough breath to make a sound. A shred of his conscious mind began counting slowly ... One, two, three ... four, five ... he passed out at ten.
************************ Lord, what a dream. Must’ve been somethin’ I ate, he thought and then he tried to move. A thousand different kinds of agony assailed him. He opened one eye. A line of ants marched past. Pebbles looked the size of boulders. He tried to moisten his lips, but there was no spit in his mouth. His hand lay alongside his face. Dark, dried blood streaked across it, and his wrist was braceleted with raw and bleeding ligature marks. But he was not tied. His hair drifted across his face and he tried to lift his head. Red and black lights flashed across his field of vision. His stomach clenched and he retched weakly. Bile and blood stained the ground by his mouth, and he remembered then, what had happened in the night.
When he clawed his way to consciousness again, the sun was strong in the sky, and Peso was snuffling softly at his hair. *I have t’move,* he thought. *If I cain’t, I’m dead.* One muscle at a time, he gathered himself with infinite slowness, feeling each motion tearing open the fragile scabs on his back, ripping the torn muscle fibers, and bringing tears streaming down his face. He managed to grab Peso’s dangling halter, and sobbed with relief that he could hang onto it.
“Mule, if yer worth more’n I paid fer ya, you’ll stand still. Please ..” he whispered. “Stand still.” Attaining an upright posture brought on a fresh wave of nausea, and Vin’s stomach cramped. He heaved weakly, staggering against Peso’s side. When the spasm passed, he wound his fingers through Peso’s mane, determined to haul himself up, saddle or no. He couldn’t think of anything but getting on that horse’s back. Mounted, he had a chance to survive. There was a boulder nearby and Vin managed to lead Peso to it, managed to crawl up on it himself, and hold on to Peso’s neck. “I swear, you get me outta this, I won’t never say another bad word about ya. Don’t matter what ya do. So jist stand still ‘til I kin git on yer back ...”
Superhuman effort, lips bit bloody, his entire body trembling, Vin dragged himself up and slid his leg over Peso’s back. He lay there alongside the gelding’s neck, breathing hard, dizzy with pain. His inner compass was skewed, but Vin closed his eyes and waited until he could orient himself. West. Chris’ shack was west. Five miles. He turned Peso and urged him forward. “I sure hope yer as smart as I figger, mule,” he spoke into Peso’s ear. “Otherwise, I was robbed.”
The next day came with a vengeance. Chris threw an arm over his eyes to block out the intruding light. His mouth was foul, his head felt as swelled up as a melon, his stomach was roiling with acid and hunger, and his bladder was about to burst. It was the latter that forced him upright and out the door. When the urgency of that relief was past, he sank down on his stoop and buried his head in his hands. Misery and guilt sat on his shoulders like the weight of the world, and he was quietly grateful that he had found the good sense to leave Four Corners and come to this place where he could lick his wounds and tend to his grief in solitude, like an injured wolf.
When he could no longer stand feeling like shit, he went to the well and drew up a bucket of water. Stripping off his shirt, he plunged his hands into the chilly depths and splashed the water over his face and hair, feeling it slide down the lean rake of his back and ribs. Shivering in the light breeze he went back inside and poured his first drink. If he could get through the day without killing himself, he would be fine for another long year.
He could not stay inside the shack. The walls were stifling him. After he made coffee and forced himself to eat some bread to settle his stomach, he took his bottle out on the stoop. He added a dollop of whiskey to his coffee, and drank it slowly, feeling the heat burn some of the fog of last night’s bender away. His eyes were still aching and the sun reflecting off the pale earth dazzled him. A hint of distant motion caught his attention and he shaded his eyes from the glare. The dark blob resolved itself into a black horse with a white blaze. Peso. Goddamn, he’d have thought that of all the others, Tanner would have had the sense to leave him alone.
Chris sighed and stood up. He squinted at Peso’s approach. Something was wrong; he couldn’t see Tanner’s distinctive silhouette. Chris headed down the path, dread quickening his pulse. He ran the last few yards, then drew up fast, afraid that his motion would spook the gelding. He held out his arms, waiting for Peso to come nearer. His apprehension grew. Peso wasn’t saddled, wore only a rope halter, and when Chris grabbed that halter, it was slick with blood. Cursing, Larabee ran his hand down Peso’s flank. More blood. Jesus. Where was Tanner?
Chris tethered Peso near the water trough and saddled up his own mount. He resisted the impulse to set off at a heedless gallop, and instead, took a page from the tracker’s book. He bent low over his horse’s neck, and followed the fresh prints, praying that the trail would not end in death.
He found Vin a couple miles to the west, and nearly rode past what he took for a tussock of grass until the light caught a flash of something glistening and red. Chris reined in and dismounted. When he stood over the tracker’s body, the earth seemed to rock beneath his feet, and he dropped to his knees. Tanner was laying face down in the dirt, his back so bloody that it looked like a slab of raw meat, and wherever he wasn’t bleeding, his skin was dusky with bruises. Chris had been expecting bullet wounds, not this savagery beyond imagining.
“Vin? Tanner!” he spoke urgently, but his hand was shaking as he stretched it out. How did you touch a man who had been flayed? Was he even alive? Chris laid a long finger alongside the vein in Tanner’s neck and felt the flutter of a heartbeat. Alive, but what next? Chris rose and untied the blanket he had lashed to his saddle. It wasn’t sanitary, but it was better than the dirt. As gently as he could, Chris laid the blanket over Vin’s back and turned him face up. He breathed a prayer of relief. Aside from a dark bruise on his temple, Vin’s face was untouched. It was the only mercy he had been granted. Chris brushed the dirt from Tanner’s cheek and combed his fingers through his matted hair. “Jesus, pard. Who did this to you?” He opened his canteen with his free hand and poured a few drops of water on Vin’s lips. “C’mon, partner. I hate for you to wake up, but I have to get some water down you. You gotta drink.” Another small splash of water, and Vin stirred in his arms. His eyes fluttered open, wide and blue, and dazed with pain.
“Yeah, it’s me. Don’t try to talk, pard. Just drink this, and then we’ll ride back home, real slow.”
“Don’t think I c’n do that ...”
“Well, damnit. You’re gonna have to. Because I ain’t spending the night out here without a bottle of whiskey.” It was either joke or start crying. When Vin’s pale lips curved in a smile, Chris felt his eyes burn.
“Eatin’ his head off in my stable. Now, be quiet and drink.”
Vin managed three good swallows of water before he pushed the canteen away. “Sorry. It’ll jist come back up ...”
Chris wasn’t looking forward to the next few minutes. “Listen, pard. I’m sorry, but there’s no other way to do this. You ready to move?”
The thought was nauseating, but Vin nodded. “S’alright, Chris. Ain’t got the strength t’fight ya, or the breath t’holler. So I reckon, I’ll jist go along fer the ride.”
Chris slipped his shoulder under Vin’s arm and levered him upright. It was easier than he had expected; he hadn’t thought Vin would be so light. Even half-conscious, he didn’t have much weight to support. Somehow, he got Vin on the horse’s back, and mounted behind him, cradling his body carefully. He had to go slowly; each jolt sent shivers of pain through the injured man, and Chris was afraid that the moisture he felt on his shirt wasn’t just perspiration, but Vin bleeding though the blanket.
By the time they reached the shack, the shadows were long, and Chris ached in every muscle of his body. Vin had fainted some time ago, and how he was going to get the tracker out of the saddle without him landing in a heap, was a problem that Chris hadn’t managed to solve. As he crested the slight rise marking the boundaries of his land, he halted. There was smoke coming from his chimney, and a rangy gray horse tethered near Peso at the water trough. Buck. Damn him, and bless him. Sometimes Chris thought there might be a God after all.