Walkin’ ‘n’ Whisky

By Gil Hale – corbidae@yahoo.com

Disclaimer: All disclaimers, usual or unusual, apply.

Author’s Notes: Written as a December 2005 birthday fic for the Black and Buckskin list. Please note! Any first aid procedures in this story belong to the 19th century, and some of them are strongly disapproved of by doctors today!

Chris squinted into the late afternoon sun. It was still painfully bright to his eyes, though it was close enough to setting to redden the rocky outcrop he was staring at. He shifted uncomfortably in the saddle. They’d been riding since first light and he was aching and parched. If he had a lick of sense he’d be calling this a wild goose chase, but no one had the right to that kind of sense when women and children had been hurt. Anyway, the man beside him thought he was still following some wisp of a trail, and Chris trusted his judgment.

“Got anything?” he asked.

Vin Tanner was tracking with the skills he’d learned from the Comanche and honed as a bounty hunter. He went on studying the ground a moment longer before he looked up. “They came this way. Slowing up, leaving a mite more trace, so I reckon they think they’re safe.”

He stilled Peso with a touch—the horses were as tired and thirsty as their riders—and took out the small spyglass he always carried. “I know this place,” he added softly.

Chris had lost sight of anything familiar long ago; he’d been following Vin while Vin followed the near-invisible trail. “Why’d they go into the rocks, unless they knew we were after them?”

“There’s a gully in there,” Vin said. “Kinda cave off of it, more like a scoop out the rock. There’s a place t’ th’ back of it where water collects. They’ll be goin’ t’ hide up there, water th’ horses.”

“Settle for the night?”

Vin nodded. “Their horses won’t go further. You saw ’em in th’ livery at Eagle Bend.”

They’d been in poorer condition than the other horses in the livery; Sam Benton, the old livery man had said they belonged to the only other strangers in town, and later Chris and Vin had seen the men drinking in the Eagle Bend saloon.

Chris let his thoughts range now, while Vin stared through the eyeglass into the distance. He’d not wanted to go to Eagle Bend, but Orrin Travis had wanted fences mending between the lawmen of the two towns, and had decided Chris had better make it his job to see it happened. So when a conman arrived in Four Corners from there, and made the fatal mistake of trying to outwit Ezra, Chris had made inquiries instead of just locking the guy up. Eagle Bend wanted the trickster back, and Chris had taken him there personally, in a gesture of good will he certainly didn’t feel.

Stains, the sheriff, had muttered something about Eagle Bend locking conmen away and Four Corners giving them work as lawmen, but he’d taken the prisoner and nodded to Chris in what could be taken as thanks. As the last time they’d met it had been fists and boots, Chris thought Orrin ought to count that an improvement. He and Vin had headed over to the saloon afterwards, decided to take a couple of rooms and ride back in the morning. The place was crowded and dirty, but the bartender had just gotten in some whisky that outclassed the usual rotgut. Chris bought a few bottles to take back with him. He’d shared the best part of one with Vin while they sat in a corner in comfortable silence.

They’d noticed the men then, guessed they were strangers from the wariness with which the Eagle Bend inhabitants treated them. The three had been drunk enough already, and they’d gone on drinking all the time Chris and Vin were there, but there’d been no more trouble than there usually was in a bar. Late in the evening one of the strangers, a huge man, bald except for a remaining fringe of ginger hair, had gone off with one of the working girls.

Chris had awoken to commotion sometime in the early hours of the morning, shouts of ‘Fire’, a woman screaming. He’d dragged on his boots, which was all he’d bothered to remove, and opened his door to find Vin about to knock on it.

“It’s next door. Th’ cat house,” Vin said. “Looks bad.”

The working girls in Eagle Bend didn’t use the rooms above the saloon; they had the neighbouring building. It was well alight when Chris got outside, and only a handful of citizens were trying to get water on the flames—probably those with neighbouring properties. An elderly woman leaned out of a window across the street and shouted something about sin and judgement.

Three or four girls, an almost naked man, and a small boy were shocked and shaking out in the street, and one woman was screaming to get back inside, trying to pull away from them as they held her back.

“My baby! Let me get my baby!”

Something in Chris had risen hot and choking at her desperation, refusing to accept the child was already dead. He snatched a bucket from the saloon owner, tipped it over himself, did it again, shouted at Vin not to come, but Vin was already soaking his clothes as well.

“Where?” Chris shouted at the woman, slapping her face to stop the screams. “Which room?”

She pointed to the window to the left above the door, sobbing as she begged him to help. Chris couldn’t see flames in the room. He glanced at Vin, didn’t even need to speak. One of the men with buckets had brought an axe. Chris hacked down the railings from near the bar, flung them against the whore house as a makeshift ladder, and felt Vin steady him from behind as he scrambled up.

They’d drenched bandanas and tied them over their faces. The smoke was thick, but the flames hadn’t reached the room. The baby was deathly still in a drawer by the bed—a tidy bed, the mother must have still been out looking for custom. Chris snatched it up, handed it out of the window to the saloon keeper who’d come part way up.

“Vin!” he shouted, muffled through the bandana.

“Chris. Come see this.”

The note in Vin’s voice cut through the noise and heat. Chris joined him where he’d cautiously opened the door, and even in the thick smoke he knew at once what he was seeing. The woman who lay sprawled along the hallway had a pool of blood spilling from under her.

Knowing they barely had minutes, they’d turned her over, seen the stab wounds that made it a miracle she’d ever moved from where she’d been hurt, and known too that this was evidence someone needed to see. Hating the ugliness of what they had to do, they’d dragged the body to the window and rolled it out, jumped down just before the fire burst through into the upper storeys.

There’d been more folk outside by then. Another woman had escaped the building and was moaning on the sidewalk, her skin blistered raw. Someone was tending to her. A man Chris recognised as the local doctor was doing something strange to the baby, his mouth seeming to cover its small face. Even as Chris stared, the doctor had lifted his head and the baby coughed and managed a thin wailing cry.

In the end, no one had died from the fire, at least not before they’d left this morning, but it hadn’t looked too good for the women and the baby was breathing like an old man. Maybe by now their deaths were to be added to that of the murdered working girl, but at the very least the fugitives were guilty of one murder. Stains thought the fire had been set to cover it up, or at least delay discovery of the body ’til the men were well away, and on this Chris agreed with him. It gave a spur to his determination to catch up with them, and as for Vin…

He glanced at Vin, still motionless, eyeglass fixed on the rocks, a sepia statue gilded a bit by the setting sun. Vin had been watching the baby struggling for each breath, his face twisted as if the gulps for air hurt his own chest. He’d follow this trail for as long as it took.

“They’re in there,” Vin said at last. Soft as his voice was it almost startled Chris after the long silence.

“Even if they don’t think they’ve been followed they’ll set a watch.” Chris accepted Vin’s judgement completely, moving at once to planning the capture. “Won’t be easy for us to move quiet around those rocks in the dark.”

Vin nodded. “Half hour south of here, there’s water—we c’n rest there a bit, come back when th’ moon’s up, get above them just afore dawn.”

It was the most he’d said for hours, and a complete enough plan for Chris. They went slowly, the sun setting as they rode, and it took closer to an hour to reach the place. They tended to the horses, made a fire, ate biscuits washed down with a whisky apiece from the stash in Chris’s saddlebag.

“Be near six hours ’til th’ moon’s up,” Vin said.

“You get some sleep.”

“Turn about.”

Chris shook his head. His body was tired enough, but his mind was busy and too likely to bring unwelcome memories if he relaxed. “You get some sleep,” he said again, making it as near an order as he ever gave Vin.

Vin looked at him, the small flames of the fire throwing shadows that hid his expression, then simply nodded and stretched out. His silent acceptance eased Chris a little. All day as they rode through the heat, fire had haunted the edge of his thoughts. He wanted to wrestle them under control alone. Come morning, he’d need that control.

Vin relaxed, let his eyes close, held himself somewhere between sleeping and waking. Let his mind ‘n body rest, but he still knowed th’ drift of th’ night breeze, th’ small crackles of th’ fire… th’ clink as Chris lifted th’ whisky bottle for another swig.

Had t’ be hard on Chris, th’ fire. Not that y’d know, ‘less y c’d read Chris like a trail. Vin hadn’t been looking fer sign, but he’d seen th’ look on Chris’s face when he thought th’ baby was dead. Might be dead for real by now, a tiny thing like that coughin’ and wheezin’ like an old man, but Doc Macrae had breathed some life back into it last night.

Doc Macrae was a good man. Nathan reckoned so, and he knew about healin’. Nate should be in Eagle Bend by now; th’ doc was goin’ t’ send a telegram t’ ask him t’ come bring his salves. Between them, maybe th’ two of them could fight death off for th’ folks who’d bin hurt. Vin wished he could bring life sometimes, rather than justice, but him and Chris, they’d see the men came back and paid for what they’d done—or paid here.

He could feel th’ night passin’, never needed no watch nor clock to know how far from sundown it was. He let midnight pass, let th’ tiredness soak away from him into th’ ground. Around two, th’ moon was well up and th’ night was chill and clear. He stirred, then, stretched his arms and legs, knew he was rested enough and sat up. Chris was a black shape, hunched and tight as a bow string. Lucky Chris c’d shoot as straight even if he was tired or drunk or angry.

“We c’n make our way back there, slow and quiet, ‘n find a place fer th’ horses,” Vin said. A noise from th’ horses was th’ thing most likely to betray them as they got into position, but Peso and Pony understood when they was s’posed to be silent, so long as nothing spooked them.

“No cats likely to be hunting in those rocks,” Chris said, and Vin nodded, still surprised when Chris was thinking th’ same as him. It warmed him more’n any man’d understand who’d not spent years truly alone.

Chris stretched now, and he was all stiff muscles and clenched hands. Vin’d give him th’ easier way up th’ rocks; seein’ as Chris didn’t know th’ place there’d be no argument.

The moonlight was treacherous; shadow of a rock, hole in th’ ground y’ couldn’t tell, but they went slow and careful, plenty of time t’ get where they wanted t’ be. Vin knew where th’ men’d have holed up, close t’ th’ water. He’d get above them t’ th’ north end where th’ gully narrowed; Chris c’d go up in th’ rocks near th’ way in. Come dawn, when they c’d see t’ shoot, Chris’d give th’ men th’ chance t’ turn theirselves in. He knew Chris’d do that even though they were fire raisers, as sure as he knew where th’ sun’s first light’d hit. He’d learned something about law and justice, workin’ with Chris.

The men wouldn’t do it though. They’d rather fight than hang, and they had some cover down there. Chris and Vin’d get ’em in th’ end, one way or another, but it mightn’t be too quick.

It was maybe an hour ’til dawn when they split up. They left Peso and Pony stood patiently, reins hooked over a jagged spur at the edge of the rocks. No point talkin’, they knew there was a risk, same as there always was. Vin held out his hand, Chris clasped his arm, said more’n words. They went to get into position above the killers.

Vin concentrated on getting’ up th’ rocks silently, testing each handhold—needed t’ be sure nothing would break off and rattle down to disturb someone on watch below. He was flat on his stomach, rifle ready when th’ first light began to show. There was cover down there, and th’ hollow in the rock would more than shelter a man, but right now the men were out in the open.

If they made any move at all but to throw their guns down, he’d have t’ shoot, ‘fore they c’d hole up and drag this out. Slowly the sun edged up and the cold began to ebb from the air, and he sighted on the big bald man he reckoned had used his knife on the girl.

Right when Vin knew he would, Chris shouted down to the men t’ give theirselves up. And first it went just like Vin’d thought it would, and then it went t’ hell.

Maybe if Chris had been less tired, less focussed, it wouldn’t have happened, but from the moment he shouted to the men to give themselves up it was as if he had tunnel vision. The three of them began firing and diving for cover almost before he’d gotten the words out. Vin hit the big bastard who’d probably done the cutting, but didn’t get him fatally—the man rolled behind a boulder and went on firing. Chris caught the one who looked part Indian, hit him somewhere in the right shoulder. After a weak attempt at firing left-handed, the man gave up and lay slumped against a rock, his good hand clutching at the wound as if he was trying to stop the bleeding.

The third man backed into the hollow in the rock. Chris tried to flush him out, and then laid down covering fire in case Vin could move around. He didn’t see or hear any hint of it, except that Vin wasn’t firing, but then a shot came from an angle to the hollow, and he saw the fugitive go down.

The big man was still firing from behind his boulder, and he had a good rifle, some kind of repeater, pinning Vin down now in the spot he’d reached. Chris knew it was his turn to move. He shifted cautiously through the rocks, the sun already up enough to make him wary of his shadow giving him away, and edged towards a place where he could get a clearer shot. Every ounce of his concentration was fixed on the line of that as he got into position.

He heard the rattle just as he fired, and flung himself sideways, but too late. The snake struck at the same moment as he saw his bullet hit home and the big man collapse.

Chris’s yell and the shot as he killed the snake brought Vin out from cover, but Chris was too busy slashing at the bite with his knife to take it in. He sucked and spat as the blood started to run freely. He could feel the burn of the venom; he had to get it out, as much as he could.

Then there was a shot he hadn’t expected to hear from below. He looked up and saw Vin stagger, lose his balance where he was jumping down the rocks, then recover to fire left-handed at the breed. The guy hadn’t been as out of the fight as he’d looked, or maybe he’d misunderstood what was happening and fired out of fear Vin was coming for him. Cursing, Chris stumbled to his feet, still trying to suck venom from his hand though he could already feel it beginning to swell.

“‘M okay,” Vin shouted, though his right arm swung awkwardly loose as he scrambled up towards Chris. “Scratch, that’s all. Was it a rattler?”

“Never saw the damn thing ’til I put my hand nearly atop of it.”

The snake’s body lay where it had coiled alive, on a flat-topped rock in the early sun. Vin glanced at its markings, his face grimmer than usual, nodded approval at the blood still dripping from Chris’s hand, and took off his bandana to tie it broad and tight across the top of Chris’s arm.

“Don’t got to cut off the blood movin’, just slow it up,” he muttered.

Thinking of blood, Chris could see the drops flecking the rocks weren’t all his own. Vin’s sleeve was already dark and blood trickling down his wrist from the ‘scratch’ on his arm.

“Tie that up,” Chris said shortly. “Don’t need both of us in trouble.”

“Get down t’ th’ flat,” Vin said, trying to put some pressure on his arm one-handed. Chris saw the wound was deep enough, but not likely to be a problem once they got the bleeding stopped. He used his good hand to help pull the material tighter around it.

“It’s okay,” Vin said hastily. “We got t’ get down. There’s hartshorn in m’ saddlebag ‘n you’ve whisky. Walkin’ ‘n whisky. That’s what’ll get y’ through a rattler bite. Y’ got t’ keep movin’ Chris.”

Teeth gritted against the throbbing pain spreading up his arm, Chris managed to get down to level ground. In spite of his own injury, Vin was way ahead of him, running to get Peso and Pony and bring them to the entrance to the gully. Neither of them spared more than a glance at the three bodies lying there. The men’s horses had bolted early in the firefight. The only things alive for miles around were Vin, Chris and a growing cloud of flies.

Chris jumped the last drop to the ground, winced as pain shot up to his shoulder, but carried on moving. Walking and whisky. Like Vin, he knew that was his best chance. Keep on the move, keep swigging the whisky down and hope it wasn’t too long since the snake had last killed. A lance of agony shot up his arm. He took the bottle Vin was holding out to him, gulped down a couple of swallows of the malt, and started a slow steady trudge around the gully.

Vin knew a whole heap of cures for a rattler’s bite, but hartshorn was th’ only one Nate thought was okay. He tried to use his right hand—shouldn’t’ve been so hard because he knew th’ bullet had gone straight through his arm and missed th’ bone—gave up and used his left, and rubbed th’ liquid into th’ bloody gashes on Chris’s hand.

“Keep walkin’,” he said quickly as Chris slowed up.

“How the hell do you expect to do that left handed while I’m on the move?”

“I c’n do it,” Vin said. Chris’s hand was already swollen, and th’ colour ugly. He got as much of the hartshorn as he could into th’ open wound where th’ snake had struck, and saw Chris shudder with th’ pain and maybe shock catchin’ up with him. Chris was strong though. Vin hadn’t ever known a man who was stronger, mind and body. Nothin’ beat Chris.

Th’ sun was up now, but th’ gully was deep enough not to catch it too bad. Vin took care of th’ horses, dragged th’ dead bodies of the murderers away to one side of th’ entrance, and went back to Chris.

“Sit down, you’re still bleeding,” Chris said.

Vin looked down at his sleeve. He’d started bleeding moving th’ bodies, but it’d slowed up; wasn’t nothin’ to worry about. He didn’t argue, just dropped into step beside Chris. After a minute, Chris passed him th’ bottle. “Here. You can’t tell me that arm isn’t giving you hell. A drink’ll take the edge off.”

If there was one thing they weren’t short of, it was whisky. Vin took th’ bottle, swallowed, was surprised again by th’ smoothness of it. Chris and Ez said that was how whisky oughtta be.

Pity Ez and th’ rest weren’t here t’ share it. Chris was goin’ t’ get worse before he got better. They both knew it. Chris had that look, hard as nails so th’ pain wouldn’t show, but Vin knew him too well. Chris was hurtin’ like th’ blazes already, and th’ sweat was runnin’ down him as if th’ poison was squeezin’ th’ water out of his body.

Vin took another swallow, handed th’ bottle quickly back. Chris kept walking, like a man around a prison cell, along one side of th’ gully, turn, along th’ other side, turn. All Vin could do was walk at his side. Didn’t seem like much of a way to hold death off.

Ezra was finding it unaccountably difficult to take an interest in the hand of cards he was holding. The game was proving remunerative—it nearly always was when he visited Eagle Bend; perhaps something in the environment encouraged duller wits—but his attention kept drifting to the street outside.

Everyone else had returned from their pursuit of the murderous arsonists the previous evening. Only Chris and Vin were still on the trail. That hadn’t perturbed him at the time. Vin, after all, was a considerably more competent tracker than anyone sheriff Stains could call on. Somehow, however, he’d felt a growing uneasiness today.

Nathan and Josiah were busy helping Doctor Macrae. Ezra had accompanied them to Eagle Bend the day before mostly to avoid a couple of days spent arbitrating between Buck and JD on the most desirable method of law enforcement in Four Corners—although his stated reason was a long-standing obligation to the owner of the saloon, whose property had been lost.

He had, briefly, lent some valuable assistance with paperwork. He’d also spent several hours occupying the child of the badly burned woman whom Nathan and Doctor Macrae were struggling to save. Now he was no longer required in either capacity, and his mind persisted in wandering to the whereabouts of his friends.

The saloon suddenly seemed too dim and stuffy. He took his winnings, used part to buy drinks for his fellow players in case he wanted to fleece them again, and went out into the midday sunshine. There did seem to be some activity at the livery. He walked in that direction rather more rapidly than he would normally have considered appropriate in the heat.

No ill-mannered Peso, nor dust-covered tracker; no glare from Mr Larabee…

Ezra turned his attention to what there was to see: a man he recognised as one of Stains deputies, leading a limping horse, a rather miserable creature made worse by evident exhaustion.

“This was one of their mounts, right?” the deputy demanded.

The livery man nodded. “That half-breed apache was riding it. You sight the men?”

“Nope. Just the horse, near a water hole. Could’ve run a fair distance.”

Stains arrived. “Where’d you find him, Ned?”

“Out to the west, a few miles beyond Riley’s place.”

“That was the direction Tanner and Larabee were heading, yesterday.”

“Yeah. Didn’t see a sign of them, though, nor the others, just this fellow. Reckon something had spooked him; he was lathered up like he’d come a fair way.”

“One of them’s down anyway,” Stains commented. “Could be Larabee and Tanner have gone on after the other two.” He squinted up at the sun. “Been a long hot couple a days. All their horses as bad as this un?”

The livery man nodded. “No match for Larabee’s, that’s for sure.”

“Should have ridden them down by now then.”

Ezra concurred with that. He spent the next hour buying the deputy a couple of beers and finding out the lie of the land where the horse had been found, returned to the street to look futilely for any sign of incoming riders, then called at Doctor Macrae’s clinic. The baby and the woman were still alive—barely. The other victims of the fire had recovered enough to leave, though they had little enough choice of anywhere to go.

“Two wagons behind the saloon, and one room,” Josiah said. “And half the women of the town complaining that’s too much charity to show ‘loose women’.”

Ezra had other things beyond the cold charity of Eagle Bend on his mind. He told Josiah about the loose horse that had been brought in.

“It seems likely that it lost its rider in some confrontation with Mr Larabee and Mr Tanner. As they still have at least two miscreants to deal with, possibly you and I could take a ride out in the direction they were last seen heading?”

“Not like you to be so keen on a hot ride,” Josiah said, more as a question than a criticism.

Ezra shrugged. He had absolutely no intention of admitting to the apprehension that made him restless and uneasy. “Of course, Mr Jackson may have need of your assistance?”

“No, Nate and Doc Macrae can handle it. Not much more that can be done now but wait and pray… and I don’t need to be down on my knees to do that. I’ll ride out with you.”

Ezra was glad of the company, and glad to be pursuing some active course, but as they left Eagle Bend that sense of urgency still plagued him.

Midday, and Vin already felt like he’d spent half a lifetime walkin’ around this patch of ground. Th’ sun was givin’ them hell, heat burnin’ up off of the ground and th’ rocks of the gully. Vin’d filled th’ canteens over and over, pourin’ water over Chris as he stumbled along, tryin’ t’ get him t’ drink a bit along with th’ whisky.

Chris’s arm was all swollen now, and th’ hand dark. He was dry hot to Vin’s touch. Last time Vin had gone fer water, he’d found Chris near to fallin’ when he got back, dizziness settin’ in. He’d gotten an arm around him then, and hoped he wasn’t givin’ Chris more pain as he tried to take some of his weight. Lucky—if y’ were crazy enough t’ use th’ word lucky about any of this—it was Chris’s left arm and Vin’s right that was hurtin’.

The hole in his arm wasn’t botherin’ Vin none though, ‘ceptin’ it made it harder t’ help Chris along. Th’ blood had soaked through a bit, but he reckoned it had stopped when he weren’t usin’ th’ arm. Th’ pain weren’t bad. He’d jarred it one time gettin’ water and fer a minute there’d been lights across his eyes and he’d come close t’ goin’ down, but he’d gotten another swallow of whisky and his head had cleared.

Chris staggered a little, a funny kind a shiver goin’ through him, but he kept puttin’ one foot in front of th’ other. Vin tightened up his hold, tried t’ keep them both in th’ bit of shade there was. Chris never made no sound. Any other man’d be moanin’ and groanin’. Chris’s mouth was shut so tight it look’d like his teeth’d break ‘fore he let out a sound. Vin used his bad arm to hold th’ whisky bottle t’ Chris’s mouth, and hoped more went in than ran down his chin. Pain like fire shot up his own arm at the movement, and he took a swallow himself. Plenty more where that came from.

Along the gully. Heat burnin’ their feet, Chris burnin’ under his arm. Turn. Chris stumblin’, Vin stumblin’ a bit with him. He steadied himself ‘thout thinkin’, his right arm pushin’ against th’ rock, and had t’ bite on a groan as his arm knifed with pain under th’ weight.

Chris hadn’t known anythin’ fer an hour or more, but somehow he knew that.

“Vin?” he rasped, hotter ‘n drier than th’ sand under their boots.

“It’s nothin’. Keep walkin’. Yer beatin’ it Chris. Yer winnin’. If it was goin’ t’ kill y’, y’d’ve been down by now.”

God, he hoped that was true.

Ezra and Josiah found the second loose horse at a small creek, way out in the area of parched land and rocks where Stains’ deputy thought Chris and Vin might have been headed. There was a cut on the bay’s flank that caught Josiah’s attention.

“That’s a good few hours old,” he commented.

“A scratch,” Ezra said, touching it lightly.

“Not much around here to scratch him at that height.”

“You think it could have been caused by a bullet?” Ezra said doubtfully.

“More likely a chip of rock.” Josiah paused, looked around the barren landscape. “I’m beginning to believe Chris and Vin caught up with these men a while ago, and there was some sort of gunfight. It would explain these loose horses.”

“It wouldn’t explain their rather obvious failure to return,” Ezra muttered. He looked at the mass of hoof prints near the water, and began to walk slowly away, picking up the line where the horse had first approached the creek.

“He might have wandered a fair bit before he found his way here,” Josiah warned, understanding what he was doing.

“Do you have any better suggestions?”

“I’m worried about them too, son,” Josiah said quietly. “But I don’t think I could follow a trail on ground as dry as that. Can you?”

Ezra often surprised him—was surprising him now with the badly-hidden depth of his concern—but he’d certainly never imagined tracking to come within the gambler’s range of accomplishments.

“I can try,” Ezra said, and turned to study the ground with the intensity he normally showed when he was playing for the highest stakes.

Perhaps he was.

Josiah saw the bleak ruggedness of the rocks in the distance, and thought how little help there would be for a wounded man out there. Trying to remember all the tricks Vin had ever used on the trail, he moved slowly to Ezra’s side.

Chris walked through a distorted and blurred nightmare landscape. Searing heat burned him inside and out. He could no longer think clearly enough to know what was happening or why he was suffering. The sand and rock in front of him shimmered as if a fire was licking up. Maybe it was. Yeah. This was hell, and he was walking the edge of it.

He kept walking. He knew he had to do that: keep walking or the flames would drag him down. Pain coursed up the left hand side of his body, and spasms threatened to make him fall, but he held on, because the one thing that was clear in the hot confusion of his mind was that he wasn’t alone.

Sure enough, just when he thought he couldn’t endure any longer, blessedly cool water poured over his head and down his face. “Vin,” he tried to say, but his mouth was numb and the sound a croak. The water tipped over his dried lips and eased the fire in his throat, water and then the caress of whisky. He drank, and felt the strength of Vin’s arm brace him again. He lifted his head and took another painful step.

Fuck you, Satan, he thought defiantly. Maybe hell wants me, but I won’t fall. Not now. Not with this man holding me back.

The flames licked at his feet, scorched the flesh of his arm. He blinked with unfocussed eyes at his hand and thought it was charred from the burning. Leaning on Vin he dragged himself on.

Time passed, and he had no means of judging it, no sense of any existence outside this agonised stumbling, but eventually there came a moment when he staggered and Vin staggered too, and Chris felt his knees smack painfully into the ground. He didn’t think he could get up again for all Vin’s urging and cursing, but Vin’s last struggling effort to get him to his feet came not with another curse but a sound closer to a sob, and that wrenched through Chris ’til he found the will to go on.

He was bone weary now, achingly, exhaustedly weary, and he knew from Vin’s harsh breathing next to him that he wasn’t the only one. But to his wonder as he forced himself to take yet another step, he realised that sometime while he’d been lost in that pain-filled limbo the flames had ebbed a little.

He squeezed his eyes shut, then opened them, and knew that at last the blurred confusion of his sight was beginning to clear. He started to see the rock and the sand, the walls of his world. Walking was a dragging, aching effort, but the spasms that had knotted his muscles had eased back to a dull throbbing. Hell was dropping behind, and only the pain in his arm and hand threatened to pull him back to the burning.

He trudged on. Up ahead, almost clear now to his eyes, something moved and flapped and landed black and ugly on the rocks ahead of them. Hunched and hooded, it glared at them from beady eyes.

Satan, angry that hell had had to let them go.

Chris stopped and fumbled for his gun with his right hand, tried to lift it and hadn’t the strength. Vin’s hand closed over his. Chris turned his head a little, saw Vin’s face for the first time in hours—gaunt, exhausted, dirty, but with the start of a grin as he understood what Chris wanted.

They lifted the gun together, both hands shaking a bit, but steadying each other. The first shot hit the creature, but they fired again and again—to send it back to hell and because they’d escaped the flames. Then Vin staggered over to where a half empty whisky bottle stood in the dirt, and brought it back.

“Yer getting’ there, Chris. Y’r goin’ t’ beat it,” he said, his voice a tired rasp, but more confidence in his words than there had been before.

Propping each other up, they took turnabout with the bottle and began their unsteady walk again, hope giving them back a little strength.

Josiah and Ezra had spent a long hot afternoon moving with slow determination and many frustrated pauses out across the dry ground, searching out the horse’s tracks. They’d never completely lost the trail. Ezra realised that this probably meant it was clear enough that Vin could have covered in minutes ground it took them an hour to cross, but all that really concerned him was whether the progress they were making would prove too slow for their friends.

He swung back up on Chaucer, glad to straighten his back after being stooped over.

“The trail does seem to be straighter now,” he said. “We could perhaps gamble a little—it’s quite likely the horse came from the rocky area over there. Given that is the only cover for miles, it would have been a logical place for the fugitives to seek shelter.”

“If we leave the trail now we may have to go back on ourselves a long way to pick it up again,” Josiah said.

“Not at all. We can mark this point, and return to it if I’m mistaken. Besides, it can only be a couple of hours before dusk. We need…”

He broke off startled as a brief volley of shots rang out from the rocks he’d just indicated. Without any need to exchange words, he and Josiah kicked their tired horses into a gallop and headed for the sound. It was only a brief distance, but it seemed to Ezra interminable, and the twisting anxiety in his stomach that he had been refusing to acknowledge returned full force.

There was no more shooting, and no movement that he could see. Had that been some last, fatal encounter he had been too tardy to prevent?

“This way,” Josiah called, and Ezra saw the shadowy break that was an entrance to a gully. He reached it just behind Josiah, and almost cannoned into him as he pulled his horse up sharply. The preacher was down and running before Ezra saw beyond him between the rock walls… saw Vin and Chris, staggering towards them, apparently propping each other up, saw a cloud of flies rise up at Josiah’s movement from what looked like three bodies, saw the pain and exhaustion and relief on Vin’s face as he saw them. Ezra realised he was running, though he did not even remember dismounting from Chaucer…

Josiah was taking Chris’s weight from Vin.

“Y’ got t’ keep him walking,” Vin muttered. “Ain’t sure he’s safe t’ stop. Walkin’ ‘n whisky. ‘S working J’siah. Jus’ got t’ keep him goin’.”

“Rattler?” Josiah asked, as Ezra moved to support Vin and realised the tracker’s sleeve was dark with dried blood.

“Bit him around sun up,” Vin said. “We been walkin’. Chris’s beaten it, I reckon, but…”

Josiah held Chris’s weight easily, carefully avoiding the hand that Ezra could now see was horribly swollen and oozing from the slashed cuts where the bite must have been. “His heartbeat’s good,” he said. “That’s near enough twelve hours, Vin. I think you’re right. He’s past the worst of it.”

“Mending,” Chris said hoarsely. He was sagging against Josiah’s chest, but his head was up defiantly. “C’n see now; mouth ain’t numb. Let Vin rest…”

“Don’t need t’ rest,” Vin said, but he’d slumped against Ezra.

“Bullet through his arm.” Chris forced the words out of his dry throat. “Fix it, J’siah.”

“We’ll see to it,” Josiah promised. “And to your hand. You may have beaten the venom, but that bite needs some dressing.”

“There’s water,” Vin said, swaying as he tried to gesture at a hollow in the rocky wall of the gully. “Y’ sure, J’siah?”

“About Chris? Yes. He won’t be comfortable for a few days, but it’s not going to kill him.”

Ezra hastily tightened his hold. It was clear to him that the one thing keeping Vin on his feet had been the need to take care of Chris. Sure enough, Vin mumbled something that might have been ‘Y ‘n Ez see t’ ‘im then’ and his knees buckled. Ezra was already braced to keep him from falling. He got Vin’s uninjured arm over his shoulder and half carried him to the shade near the hollow he’d indicated.

Thankfully Vin had already discarded the buckskin coat. It lay in the dust, resembling a dead animal even more than usual, and Ezra only had to free Vin’s arm from the sleeve of his shirt. He manipulated the makeshift bandage from Vin’s arm with as much care as he ever used to position an ace, while Josiah helped Chris over beside them.

The bullet wound was messy but not unduly inflamed. The loss of blood and the hours spent walking around in the heat must be the main cause of Vin’s weakness. Ezra soaked his handkerchief in whisky—Josiah had removed a part empty bottle from Chris’s grasp—and cleared the blood very gently from Vin’s arm.

“Y’ ain’t dealin’ me off th’ bottom of th’ pack,” Vin said without opening his eyes. “Go ahead. Y’ won’t hurt anythin’ that’s not hurtin’ already. Tell J’siah t’ see t’ Chris’s hand.”

“I assure you if I was dealing from the bottom of the pack you wouldn’t even know my fingers were moving,” Ezra said. “This doesn’t look too bad, Mr Tanner, but it will require more irrigation in a moment.”


“I’ll need to wash it out with the whisky. Fortunately there’s almost half a bottle left.”

“Lots more in Chris’s saddlebag,” Vin said. “Is J’siah…”

“Yes, brother,” Josiah said patiently. He’d eased Chris down with his back against the rock and was bathing the ugly seeping gashes with more of the hartshorn.

Vin struggled to lift his head, only managed to blink at them briefly, but must have seen clearly enough to be satisfied. “Reckon he’s walked th’ poison off, but y’ got t’ watch that hand. Aaaah. Shit.” He shuddered as Ezra now tipped whisky liberally into the bullet wound, gasped and arched back.

Ezra tasted blood and realised he’d bitten his lip. He steadied Vin, and tried not to think about the fact that he was almost certainly going to have to cause him more pain. He looked across to Josiah. “This should be cleaned more thoroughly—if a scrap of that coat has adhered…” He’d seen the blood on the coat sleeve. Vin must have been wearing it when he was struck, and Ezra knew that such things could cause a wound to fester.

Josiah nodded. “I think we’d do better to move to the creek before dark. We could make a fire there and take care of them better.”

“It would be more salubrious surroundings there,” Ezra agreed, glancing at the bodies in the gully entrance which were already more than unpleasant from the heat.

“If you can carry Vin on Chaucer with you, I’ll take Chris and we’ll lead the…”

“C’n ride,” Vin interrupted.

“We’ll ride,” Chris said, somehow pushing himself to a sitting position. He looked as bad as Ezra had ever seen him, his face grey under the dust and drawn tight with pain, but his voice was decisive. Josiah didn’t waste time arguing except to ask if Peso could behave himself.

“Watch ‘im.”

Ezra really doubted this confidence would be rewarded but Peso, contrarily enough, stood in perfect obedience while Josiah hoisted Vin to his back. Ezra tucked the whisky into his own saddlebag and realised there were two empty bottles on the ground as well. “Exactly how much of your blood did you replace with alcohol?” he asked Vin, bringing Chaucer up close enough that he could lend a steadying hand if necessary.

“Y’ need plenty of whisky fer a rattler bite,” Vin said. “Ain’t bad fer pain, neither.”

“You and Mr Larabee appear to have consumed two and a half bottles!”

“Yeah? Worked, didn’t it?”

Ezra found no ready answer to that. Who was he to argue with success?

“Ain’t goin’ t’ fall off,” Vin added, swaying in the saddle but somehow retaining his balance.

“We’ll wait and see,” Ezra said.


“A dollar says I’ll have to catch you before we reach the creek.”

“Yer on.”

It was remarkably seldom that Ezra won even a few coins from Vin, except at the card table. This time he was glad of it, as that extra degree of challenge kept Vin precariously in his saddle until they came to a halt by the creek.

“Dollar!” Vin said with satisfaction, holding out his left hand and lurching dangerously to one side.

Ezra jumped down and caught him as he passed the point of no return. “Dollar,” he agreed, steadying Vin to the ground, and feeling in his pocket for some loose change.

Unfortunately that reminded Vin of something else. “Where’s m’ coat?”

The buckskin coat had not entered Ezra’s mind except as a potential purveyor of infection. He’d last noticed its carcass back at the gully.

“You forgot m’ coat?” Vin asked horrified. “Damn it, J’siah. All that fussin’ and y’ forget a man’s coat!”

The rasping, painful sound Ezra heard was Chris, laughing.

The sigh was Josiah. “I’ll get it come dawn, Vin,” he promised. “Or I could give it a lovely funeral service. Now maybe the two of you would like to sit down and be quiet while Ezra and I make a fire.”

The sun was fast heading down behind the rocks. Ezra hurried to collect some dry wood. They needed hot water and since they had no better implements to clean Vin’s wound, they needed to boil a knife—Nathan was as careful about that as most men were about cleaning their guns. The procedure was something Ezra viewed with some dread, but there had been tiny scraps of cotton and worse within the wound and he knew it was inadvisable to leave it any longer.

“Your hands are defter than mine, brother,” Josiah said quietly when they were ready.

Ezra looked down at them. They were shaking slightly. “You have more experience,” he said.

Chris had been drifting in and out, but he evidently hadn’t missed what was going on. He opened bloodshot eyes now. “Do it, Ezra!” he ordered, and for some reason the harshness of his tone steadied Ezra’s hands. If Chris thought it worth summoning the energy to glare at him over this, perhaps he really was the better man for the task.

It was unpleasant and rather bloody, vicariously painful for Ezra and very directly painful for Vin, and they used up the rest of the half bottle of whisky inside and out, but in the end the wound was clean.

Josiah dried the sweat from Vin’s face and hair, and eased him down next to Chris. Ezra put his own jacket over him, and went, urgently, to be sick in the bushes. When he returned, Josiah offered him yet another full bottle of the whisky.

“From Chris—he had enough to stock a saloon in that saddlebag.”

Ezra wiped his mouth on the back of his arm—an uncouth habit he’d almost certainly caught from present company—and gratefully took a gulp.

Chris was stretched out alongside Vin, but he was watching. “You did all right,” he said.

Ezra took another gulp in surprise. “This is unusually good whisky,” he commented quickly; no one needed to notice he was absurdly pleased by Mr Larabee’s brusque compliment.

Chris nodded, and closed his eyes. Ezra and Josiah fed the fire, wished they had something more palatable than hard biscuits, and settled to watch through the night.

Chris was back in the fire. It haunted him, flaring up in his dreams. Memories and fears and imagined scenes jumbled together in an angry and red-lit chaos. He struggled through flames looking for someone, but he didn’t know which direction to turn as hallways full of fire led off in every direction. He was searching for Vin, then for Sarah. He found a body and turned it over, choking on his horror, but the dead face that stared up at him was that of the whore.

He stumbled through the fire, knowing he must keep walking, though he didn’t remember where he was going. A lasso of flame snaked from the darkness behind the glare and fastened around his wrist, the flames searing his hand. Pain ripped through his sleep and he awoke, cursing.

The flames dwindled to the small light of the camp fire. Josiah lent an arm and helped him to sit up. “Sorry, Chris—you rolled over onto your left side before I could stop you. Let me fix your hand again.”

“Time?” Chris asked.

“A couple of hours past midnight,” Ezra said, handing him the water.

Chris drank, poured some over his face and felt awake enough to forget what he’d been dreaming. He tried to flex the hand Josiah was bathing with cooled boiled water and more ammonia. It hurt enough to make him clamp his mouth shut on a yell, but he thought there was more movement there.

“The swelling’s definitely gone down a little,” Josiah said. Chris couldn’t see his expression in the firelight, but he guessed from the reassurance in the tone that Josiah understood. Like Chris, he’d have seen a few snakebite victims over the years. Sometimes the poison seemed to linger, and a man might lose an arm or a leg to gangrene. No point sitting there brooding on it though. As far as he could tell, it was starting to mend.

“Vin?” he asked.

“Hasn’t stirred,” Josiah said, glancing at the sleeping shape that was unusually neat under Ezra’s smart jacket. “We’ll check his arm again once it’s light, but it looks like he’s escaped any infection—don’t know how.”

“Perhaps it pays to replace as much blood as possible with alcohol,” Ezra commented. “Though I must say, Mr Larabee, that if you’re going to resort to whisky as your medicine of choice, you chose an excellent brand.”

“Slides down smooth,” Chris agreed. “New cure-all.”

“I suppose your saddlebags don’t happen to contain any other form of sustenance?”

Chris shook his head. “Ate what we had. Vin’s got coffee, though.”

During the long, barely remembered hours of walking around the gully, he thought he’d thrown up once or twice, but his stomach had settled in spite—or maybe because of—the whisky, and he suddenly craved the hot bite of coffee.

Ezra made it: half as strong and twice as drinkable as Vin’s version. Chris’s world began to expand beyond his narrow, day-long fight for survival. “How were things back in Eagle Bend?”

“Apart from that one poor woman and the baby, healing well,” Josiah said.

“There was a strong flavour of fire and brimstone in many of the conversations,” Ezra added. “The more respectable ladies of Eagle Bend would like to seize the opportunity to remove their sinning sisters.”

Well, that was human nature at its least appealing. But Chris understood it more, maybe, than anyone who’d never married. He still remembered Sarah coming back from visiting a neighbour, almost too angry to tell him what had riled her. The woman, pregnant with her fourth and with the other three all under five years, had been distraught. Her husband, tired of an exhausted wife and a house full of kids, had found something livelier with one of the local working girls. Sarah’s fury had been with the man, but all the same, Chris thought she’d felt a threat there—cheerful, easy women, not weighed down by children or chores.

“It’s not our town,” he said. “They’ll have to make their own peace.”

He’d intended to stay awake the rest of the night; he’d had enough of the distorted scenes of his dreams. But in spite of the hot coffee, weariness dragged him down again. He didn’t realise he’d dozed until he fetched up against Josiah’s shoulder, and before he found the energy to move he’d drifted off again. When he woke properly, it was daylight and Josiah was explaining to Vin all the reasons he couldn’t go fetch his own coat, and would have to trust the preacher with it.

Vin’s arm hurt some, but not th’ sort of hurtin’ that meant trouble. Ez’d done a good job, couldn’t beat th’ gambler fer delicate work, and ever’one knew that whisky’d put a wound on the path t’ healin’. Th’ ride back t’ Eagle Bend weren’t hard. Chris was kinda drawn still, but a hell of a lot better’n Vin had really hoped. Ez and J’siah kept an eye out fer any trouble—Vin still could hardly b’lieve the feelin’ of havin’ good men he could trust t’ watch his back—and he ‘n Chris just had t’ keep their minds on ridin’.

Yep, th’ day was okay ’til they’d gotten back t’ Eagle Bend. Five minutes with Stains soured it though. Vin reckoned Stains was probably a half good sheriff most o’ th’ time; the man just couldn’t bear it that he was no Chris Larabee. He was like some wolf always snappin’ and snarlin’ but knowin’ he c’d never take th’ leader of th’ pack. It was bad luck he was hangin’ around near th’ livery. They were hardly off th’ horses ‘fore he was around them, questions first, then makin’ out they could’ve done things better, brought th’ men in, alive or dead.

Josiah thundered at him like th’ wrath of God, and Stains backed off a bit, but Vin knew he’d keep saying his piece. “Go get ’em y’self,” he told Stains. “I c’n tell y’ clear enough where th’ bodies are piled up. They stink a bit now, and y’ll have t’ watch out fer th’ rattlers. Ain’t every man c’n walk off a snakebite like Chris done.”

Stains sent out a couple of unlucky deputies. He’d tried some more t’ get a rise outta Chris, but Chris walk’d past him like he had better things t’ think about. Like checking in at th’ saloon and replacing th’ whisky they’d finished. J’siah didn’t have t’ push much t’ get him t’ agree t’ see Nate first, though. Just as well; Chris’s hand was still ugly enough, swollen and purple and stuff oozin’ out. Vin’d had an eye on it on th’ ride. Chris knowed when somethin’ needed seein’ to though; he wasn’t playin’ at bein’ hard like Stains and his boys, needin’ t’ put on a show. Chris was th’ real thing.

Nate too, and Doc Macrae come t’ that. Felt good when they said Chris’s hand ought t’ heal okay. Might lose some skin off it, and they’d need t’ keep dressin’ it, but it was goin’ right. They both kinda rolled their eyes when Ez opened his mouth about th’ two bottles o’ whisky, but they reckoned Vin’d done th’ right thing with th’ hartshorn, and as Doc Macrae said, Chris was standin’ there more fit than he had any right t’ be, so who were they t’ argue with Vin’s ways.

They took a look at Vin’s arm as well. Vin didn’t think it needed one doctor, let alone two, but Nate liked t’ see how a book-learned doc did things. Wound was healin’ well. Vin said how neat Ez’d cleaned it out, and glared at Chris ‘fore he could say anythin’ about th’ pukin’ in the bushes after. They were just about t’ leave and head t’ the saloon when there was a wail from in th’ doctor’s other room that chilled Vin t’ the core.

He’d heard an Indian woman wail like that once. Some things weren’t no different whatever th’ colour of yer skin. He knew who must be in that room. The mama from th’ whore house, with th’ sick baby.

Doc Macrae hurried through. Nate said, quiet like, “We didn’t think the baby’d last the day. Breathing just got worse and worse.”

Vin didn’t wait t’ hear any more. Suddenly everythin’ seemed too much, shut in that space with th’ others. He didn’t want t’ make Nate feel worse, and he didn’t want t’ see Chris thinkin’ about a dead baby, and he wasn’t ready t’ hear J’siah talk about peace. Ez couldn’t handle it any more ‘n Vin could. He’d already gone. Vin saw th’ door open, and followed him. Outside, maybe it’d be easier t’ get ahold of his thoughts.

Even in a place like Eagle Bend y’ c’d find some space without folk if y’ walked a bit. Vin made his way t’ th’ edge of town, where he c’d see out a long way. He didn’t know why it was hittin’ him so hard th’ baby dying. Just seemed no point t’ rescuin’ it in th’ first place, and th’ doc getting breath back into it like that. Seemed no point t’ all of it somehow—th’ girl that had been killed, all those people hurt at th’ fire, how close Chris had come…

Babies did die. There’d be plenty of women in th’ town who’d lost a child. But it had meant a lot t’ Vin when this one had coughed and cried in th’ doc’s hands—seemed like a second chance fer it, and that Vin’d given some life ‘stead of law fer a change.

He leaned up against a tree out of th’ way of anyone passin’ and felt tired. His arm ached and he’d no mind t’ go t’ th’ saloon or be amongst people. Chris’d not ride out ’til th’ morning. Vin thought he’d just stay leanin’ here for th’ rest of th’ afternoon, and maybe his thoughts’d lighten enough fer him to be some kind of comp’ny by nightfall.

Chris watched the woman come out with her baby wrapped in a shawl. Her face was blotched with weeping, but she tried to thank Doctor Macrae and Nathan. She wanted to carry the baby to the undertakers herself. Whatever she was, she’d loved her child, and she had dignity in her bereavement.

Chris stepped to one side, out of the way. Josiah offered to walk with her, but she hardly knew him, and shook her head mutely. Nathan and Josiah followed her out, concerned, and Chris stepped into the street behind them. To his surprise, a woman came forward—elderly, thin-faced, the woman who’d been shouting from a window about sin and judgment on the night of the fire. Her manner now, though, was stiff but kind. She walked up to the mother, said something quietly, and accompanied her down the street.

“Heard once she buried two of her own when she was young,” Doctor Macrae said.

“Maybe Eagle Bend will make their own peace,” Josiah murmured to Chris.

Chris nodded. There’d be enough women here who knew what it was to mourn a baby, and the story of this one, almost snatched from the fire might touch a few of the harder hearts. Let folk remember how much pain and misery there already was in the world and maybe they’d be less keen to add to it.

He walked over to the saloon. Ezra was there, but no Vin. “I believe I owe you a whisky, Mr Larabee,” Ezra offered.

“Thanks.” Chris leaned on the bar. “Think we owe you something too. How did you know to come after us?”

“A successful gambler is a good judge of circumstances,” Ezra said, which really told Chris exactly nothing. He reckoned Ez had had a hunch they were in trouble, but the conman wasn’t likely to admit to that, or the worrying that would have prompted it.

“Where’d Vin go?” he asked.

“I thought he stayed with you?”

“Nope. Went out right after you did.”

Ezra didn’t answer. He’d have seen Vin’s face when the mother let out that first cry of loss, the same as Chris had seen it. Some deaths touched you more than others; this one had hit home to Vin even though he hardly knew the woman or her child. They drank in silence for a while. Ezra showed no interest in the card game that had begun. Chris was wondering whether to go and look for the tracker or wait for him to come back. Time passed. Chris let Ezra negotiate a good deal for both of them on some more bottles of whisky. Josiah looked in, said he’d sent a telegram to Buck and JD to say they’d be back the next day, and went to join Nathan for a proper meal.

Eventually Ezra pushed one of their newly acquired bottles towards Chris. “Walking and whisky can be palliative for other things beside snakebite. I think Mr Tanner would have walked up to the open ground beyond the graveyard.”

Chris nodded. He put some value on Ezra’s judgment—not because he was a successful gambler but because he was a better friend than he allowed himself to realise. “You mind the rest of those bottles,” he said. “I’d like to get some back to Four Corners this time.”

It was late in the afternoon now. Chris felt the ache in his legs that was a reminder of the previous day’s unending trudge, but he was feeling better all the time now—maybe too much like a man getting over a bad fever, but improving. He didn’t feel up to searching every obscure corner for Vin though; he passed the cemetery, looked around then started yelling the tracker’s name.

Vin materialised out of some shadow, scowling. “Hell, y’ sound like some hog-callin’ champ. I was comin’ back in m’ own time.”

Chris held out the bottle. “Been waiting all afternoon to share a drink with you in civilized surroundings.”

“Y’ call Eagle Bend saloon civilised?”

“Compared to a bone dry gully with a few corpses in it.”

Vin grinned reluctantly. “Grant y’ that.” He took the bottle. “Yer a bad influence, Larabee. I’ve drunk more in th’ last couple of days than I do in a month.”

He drank, wiped his mouth on his sleeve and squinted over his shoulder at the setting sun. “Where th’ hell did the day go?”

“Why, you planning to do something with it?”

“Nope. Just hadn’t noticed the time pass.”

“Thinking’ll do that to you.”

Vin shrugged. “Makes you think though, don’t it. What’s th’ point of anythin’ we done? Th’ baby got two more days t’ live. We killed those three, and two of ’em mightn’t have had a hand in th’ knifin’. The rest of Eagle Bend don’t give shit about helpin’ the working girls.”

Chris took the bottle back, drank and handed it over again, as they very slowly started to walk back into the town. “We wouldn’t have shot those men if they’d not done their damnedest to take us out, and anyway, I don’t reckon only one man set that fire. As for Eagle Bend, there’s all sorts, same as any other place. Some of ’em might surprise you. And the baby… died in his mama’s arms, not alone.” He wanted to say more, because that did matter, but the thought of Sarah and Adam who had died alone rose up and choked the words unspoken.

Vin passed the bottle back, a light touch on Chris’s arm a wordless apology for the memories they’d called up. Silently they walked around the edge of cemetery, then Vin said softly, “Yer right. I know yer right, but just once I’d’ve liked to’ve been a part of bringin’ life rather than takin’ it.”

Chris stopped dead, taken aback because this was so far from the way he saw Vin. Sure, Vin killed if he had to, same as they all did, but to keep the law and in the long run to protect a lot more lives. And he’d never known anyone more in tune with the living world than Vin; he could read the wind, let alone the land; he’d a natural understanding for the creatures, and a hell of a lot more compassion for his fellow men than Chris usually felt.

No good offering Vin abstractions or philosophy just now though; not to set against the dead flesh and blood of the baby boy.

“I’d’ve died without you there yesterday,” he said flatly, pushing the bottle into Vin’s hand again.

“Y’ wouldn’t. Y’d have beaten it. I know you Chris. When it comes t’ it, you fight ’til y’ win.”

“There’s some fights you don’t win on your own,” Chris said. “There was a time yesterday when you were all that gave me a hold on living.”

Vin upended the bottle and swallowed, silenced by that because he must have remembered those moments as clearly as Chris.

“If I’m walking near death, there’s no one I’d rather have alongside, no one more likely to see me come out of it alive,” Chris said, and saw he was getting through. “No one I’d rather share a bottle of whisky with either, supposing I ever get to drink some out of it.”

“Y’ had more’n yer share yesterday,” Vin said, his face quirking in a hint of a smile, but he handed it over. They walked companionably back through the dusk towards the lighted saloon, where Ezra was lounging outside.

Chris passed him the bottle as they reached him.

“I will join you in appreciating the whisky, but I’m going to decline on the walking,” Ezra said, drinking from the bottle with only the slightest grimace to show his preference for a glass.

“We’re done walking,” Chris said, thankful to go into the smoky room and sit down. He tilted his chair against the wall and saw with satisfaction the easy way Ezra conned Vin into a poker game, in which he’d no doubt win back that dollar. His hand was still painful, he’d odd aches in his muscles, and he’d bet (only not with Ezra) that Vin was still as sore as hell, but that’d all pass. Tomorrow they’d ride back to Four Corners, and that was the first place in too long a while that he’d had a home and people he’d call friends.

He lifted the whisky bottle one more time, and drank to that.

~ End ~