Chris had set up camp soon after the snake incident. The light was fading fast and he knew he would just go off track again and be asking for trouble if he rode too far into the high ground.
He had a restless night, tossing and turning as his mind recalled the look on his friends face as he had ridden, full of rage and hurt, out of town. His dreams had conjured up all sorts of nightmarish things that could have happened to Vin.
So he had lain awake for half of the night, staring into the crackling fire, willing himself to sense where Vin was and to know, instead of hope, that he was safe. He had laughed at himself when he realised how intensely he was concentrating on making contact with Vins mind. Heck! Who did he think he was? One of those travelling men who claimed they could read minds and see into the future?
Resigning himself to the fact that he had had all the sleep he was likely to get that night, he settled himself on the ground by the fire. Putting a blanket around him to keep out the chilly dawn air, he hugged his knees and stared into the slowly extinguishing fire. His thoughts quickly returned to his buckskinned friend.
What would he say to Vin when he found him? Because he was going to find him. He would not even entertain the idea that he would never catch up with the troublesome tracker. He would not give up until he did, however long it took. His friendship meant too much to him, and he was not going to lose it without a fight.
He found himself staring into the dying embers of the campfire, as his mind slowly returned to the present. It was almost light enough for him to carry on his search.
Chris stood up, the blanket falling from his shoulders onto the ground. Raising his arms above his head, and stretching his aching body, he grimaced at the sound of bones clicking and muscles popping in protest, reminding him of the uncomfortable night he had spent on his bedroll.
He kicked dirt over the almost non-existent fire, burying the last few red embers. He knelt down and rolled up his blanket inside his bedroll, and, rising to his feet, he picked up his saddle and walked over to his horse, once again mulling over the difficult task that lay before him.
He would have no idea what he would say to his troubled friend when he caught up with him, he thought as he threw the saddle over his horses back. Vin was not going to be a pushover when he tried to persuade him to go back to town with him, that was for sure.
He knew something bad had happened back in the jailhouse. Something bad enough to destroy Vins soul, it seemed. He couldnt even guess at what it was but it had to do with Vins and Ezras little meetings and the piece of paper that Buck had found.
He shook his head and wiped his hand across his tired eyes. It was all too much to think about now. His first priority was to find Vin, and fast.
With this in mind, he climbed into the now secured saddle and urged his horse forward.
The ground was rough under his horses hooves as he made his way along the trail he knew instinctively was the one Vin had taken. He sighed heavily and shook his head, getting mad with himself. Damn! Why couldnt his instincts have been working yesterday when he had gone the wrong way! He would most likely have found Vin by now and have him tied and gagged on his horse, dragging the sad excuse for a bounty hunter back to Four Corners where Nathan could lock him up until that darned cough had left him.
He made himself concentrate on the ground ahead of him as he noticed steep drops all around.
As he rode along a dangerous piece of terrain where the ground dropped steeply, his head suddenly popped up. He had a strange feeling that he couldnt identify. It was a knot that suddenly appeared in his stomach and rose into his chest. A sudden fleeting vision of Vin entered his head, and left as quickly as it had come. Chris cocked his head to one side, trying to make sense of the strange sensations. Could it be that Vin was close by and the link between them, that he had been trying so hard to deny earlier was strong, because they were near enough to each other to communicate?
This made Chris laugh out loud. Shaking his head at the absurdity of it all, he carried on going, unaware that Vin was laying at the bottom of the ravine, directly below him.
+ + + + + + +
Vin slowly opened his eyes and found himself looking up into a deep blue sky, a few fluffy clouds the only thing breaking up the ocean of blue. He studied the sky for several minutes, now and again a frown crossing his face.
A rabbit! It was a rabbit!
He smiled in satisfaction as he solved the puzzle that had been troubling him as he lay there.
That fluffy cloud right there looked like a rabbit! There were his ears and his bobbly tail!
His mission accomplished, it came to his attention that he had woken up with a pounding headache, and he figured that it was from the darned illness that had very kindly decided to pay him another visit.
He closed his eyes again. He could hear the blood rushing in his head. If he didnt know better he would have thought his head was underwater.
Peeling his eyes open again he watched the rabbit in the sky slowly change shape as the clouds moved along, the picture gradually dissolving into a clump of nothing.
He moved his head, and decided that had been a bad idea as a sharp pain in his temples made him grimace. Squeezing his eyes shut and clenching his teeth, he waited for the searing agony to die down to a tolerable level.
It dawned on him, as he lay there, that it hurt to breathe too. In fact, he could feel pain in just about every part of his body.
Hell! That would teach him. Next time he would take the time to unpack his bedroll when he stopped to make camp.
As he continued to lay on the ground, he searched his memory, trying to recall why he was not in town. Had Chris sent him on ahead to track someone? Was he on his way back from somewhere?
It startled Vin that he couldnt remember such a simple thing. Oh Boy! Did he ever need some of Nathans rotten tea! He managed a half smile. Heck! He must be sick, he thought, remembering the dang awful taste of the healers remedy.
Ah well, he couldnt lay here all day.
He hissed in pain as he tried to lift his head. The pain in his ribs was so intense, white stars danced in front of his eyes. Clenching his teeth in agony, he relaxed once again on the hard ground beneath him.
What the hell was going on? Why was he in so much pain?
A picture suddenly appeared in his confused mind. His horse, standing on the edge of a steep hill, buckskinned arms reaching out to grab the frightened animal.
His heart started to race in his chest as the fog in his mind that had prevented him from remembering, gradually began to clear.
A memory of Buck reading something caused his heart to clench.
He slowly closed his hand into a fist as he remembered hitting Ezra square on the jaw.
Everything gradually fell into place. The empty holes in his memory slowly being filled with the devastating events of the day before.
Vin relived the whole thing over again in his mind. He started to breathe quickly as the feeling of betrayal once more swallowed up his body. Then the sensation of falling and rolling made him close his eyes against the nausea that engulfed him as he remembered his painful journey down the deep incline he was now resting at the bottom of.
He must have been here all night.
A shudder ran through his body. He clenched his teeth in pain once more as injuries from everywhere screamed at him to keep still.
He felt truly alone.
There was no-one to help him.
So he had to help himself.
He slowly began to move each part of his body tentatively, testing which parts were hurt and which were not.
The results were not good, but they could be worse. At least he could move his legs, although it was painful to be doing it. That meant he had not damaged his back.
He could take over from Nathan yet! The thought made him giggle which caused his ribs to remind him that a couple of them were probably broken.
A sadness overwhelmed him as he thought of one of his friends.
Six faces swam into his fevered mind. Six faces of people who he thought had become friends, but were now strangers again. The faces gradually dissolved. All except one.
His muddled brain determined that Chris was still his friend. He wasnt quite sure how he came to that conclusion, but he could still feel the strong connection the two men had shared from the moment their eyes had locked as they stood on opposite sides of the street, the day they had saved Nathan from a lynch mob. The silent conversations they had just by looking at each other had to be a sign of a strong friendship didnt it?
Yes! Chris would help him. He knew it. All he had to do was find Chris, and he knew he would help him sort out his mess of a life for him.
He sighed heavily, being reminded once again of the many injuries his body had sustained in its tumble down the hillside.
Now all he had to do was get on his feet.
+ + + + + + +
Aw Heck! Who had taken his head and put a drum in its place?
Buck lay with his eyes squeezed tightly shut. Ba ba boom! Ba ba boom! Whoever was playing the damned instrument, he wished theyd play a different beat, and keep it down a bit too!
He decided to risk opening his eyes. Opening his right eye first, he found himself squinting at daylight. He waited for his pounding head to accept this information before opening his other eye.
What the hell?
The world was spinning around him and he gave up trying to focus his eyes almost immediately as a wave of nausea made him gulp and squeeze his eyes shut.
I feel drunk! Hell! I am drunk!
He chuckled as he realised that he must have had a bit of a party with a bottle pretty recently.
He opened his eyes once more, concentrating on one spot on the horizon. The top of a tree.
He began to try and gather his thoughts. Where was he? Why was he here?
It was obvious he wasnt in town. Was anyone with him? Darting his eyes from one side to the other he could not see anyone in the near vicinity. He heard a whinny. Well, his horse was with him, but he wasnt sure that counted as a someone.
He rolled his eyes. He had to focus on his thoughts and not go off on a little mind tour. Geez, he must have had a belly full!
He decided it might be for the best if he tried to at least sit up. After all, he couldnt lay there all day. Chris would kill him! Placing his hands on the ground on either side of him, he pushed himself to a sitting position, once again closing his eyes as another wave of nausea hit him.
When he felt reasonably confident that he wouldnt lose the contents of his stomach, he slowly opened his eyes and found himself looking at his horse, which was standing a few feet away from him, chewing some grass.
"Well hey there boy!" Buck greeted his faithful mount. "Dont spose you know what the heck were doin here do ya?"
The animal looked over at Buck disinterestedly, and then turned his head away once more to carry on chewing his breakfast.
Buck huffed. "Well, a fine friend you are!" he mumbled, scratching his dishevelled head. "Yer about as talkative as Chris and Vin, ya mangy good fer nothin ."
He suddenly stopped the barrage of abuse that he had been directing at his horse as a recent memory slammed into his already pounding head.
Chris and Vin! My God! Now he remembered why he was here, alone and hung over, on a dusty trail.
The drums were beating louder than ever in his swimming head as he felt his heart drop a few feet nearer his boots.
"I was looking for Vin." Buck almost choked on the whispered statement, as guilt once again crept through him.
He swayed from side to side, as he sat on the floor, his shoulders slumped in a sign of sadness and defeat. Moisture sprang to his eyes as he stared at nothing.
"This aint getting me nowhere," he said to himself as he swiped at his eyes. "I gotta put things right, and it aint gonna happen with me sittin here on me butt, sobbin like a kid thats lost is puppy dog."
An image of Vins soulful eyes staring into the jailhouse sprang into his drunken mind and made Buck curse aloud. Scrambling to his feet, he swayed and tottered the few feet to his horse.
As his hand came to rest on his saddle, still strapped to his horses back, he caught sight of a bottle poking out of his saddle bag.
"Well, ya know what they say bout the hair of the dog." He said reaching for the bottle. "Besides, I dont want this feelin to wear off."
He screwed his face up when he noticed the bottle was only a third full. Still, it would be enough. Hell! He wasnt sober now! It wouldnt take even a third of a bottle to get him completely inebriated again.
With this comforting thought he took a long swig of the mind numbing liquor. Wiping his hand across his mouth, he decided he would drink first and search second. He didnt relish the thought of falling off his horse again; he would carry the bruises he already had for a few days as it was! He would fall off his horse when he wouldnt feel the impact, he decided. And then he would look for Vin.
If Vin didnt find him first, and beat him senseless.
The thought of the slight tracker laying into him with his fists made him giggle drunkenly. Vin sure could be a lively cuss in a fist fight. Hed certainly sent Ezra flying when he laid one on him the day before, that was for darn sure.
The reminder of the incident was a sobering thought, and he didnt want to be sober. Damn it all to hell! He hadnt felt this lost since Chris had done a disappearing act on him a few years ago, soon after Sarah and Adam had died.
Now he had lost two friends in one afternoon. Chris had warned him time and again about the way he jumped into things without testing the water first. "Look before ya leap." Thats the advise Chris had given him countless times. Heck! He could hear him saying it now. And did he listen? No he damn well didnt! And look where it had got him. Drunk and alone in the middle of nowhere, looking for two friends who probably werent friends anymore. Two ex friends who would probably shoot him full of holes and then, when the bullets had run out, throw stones at his carcass.
He gulped back the tears that were threatening to appear again, and settled himself once more on the ground. With the comforting bottle firmly in his grasp, he began to hum softly.
+ + + + + + +
Well Tanner, ya aint moved yet pard.
Vin had remained in the same position for what seemed like an eternity. Darn! If he was honest with himself he would admit that he was none too keen on moving. He wished he could just lay there forever and look for rabbits in the sky.
He must be crazy! he thought, as he managed a weak smile. Geez, even his face hurt.
Pfft! Rabbits in the sky! He must have hit his head real hard, having darn loco thoughts like that.
"I gotta move m sorry ass." He rasped, and regretted it immediately as he began to cough uncontrollably. The pain in his ribs was like nothing he could ever remember experiencing before. He closed his eyes as he fought to stay conscious. This was no time to pass out, he was laying at the bottom of a ravine, bruised and bleeding, and only one thing stopped him from giving up.
His friendship with Chris.
Before he had met up with the other six men he had drifted from one place to another, avoiding any long term contact with anyone or anything. But that day in Four Corners had changed all that. That day he had found a soul mate.
As the pain ebbed away to being almost bearable, he began to work out the best way of getting to his feet. "One move at a time." he whispered, as he prepared to make that first move.
Gritting his teeth and squeezing his eyes tightly shut, he rolled onto his stomach, unable to stop the gasp of pain as various parts of his body cried out their protestations.
This was going to be slow and painful, he decided, as he prepared for his next manoeuvre. Taking as deep a breath as his ribcage would allow without him passing out, he slowly pulled one of his legs up so he was resting on his knee, shakily settling his weight on it he brought up his other leg and pulled himself up onto all fours.
Vin was now breathing in short, sharp gasps. Sweat was running down his hot, bruised face and he wished, right at that moment, that he was safely tucked away in Nathans tiny clinic. He could not stop the chuckle that escaped from his trembling lips, almost causing him to lose his balance and collapse in a heap on the ground. Steadying himself once again, he told himself it was probably best if he didnt think about much else at that moment except getting himself on his feet.
"Alrighty then." He rasped, as he stared at the ground beneath him. Readying himself for what he knew was going to be the most painful part of all, he held his breath, too afraid to breathe, and one after the other, brought his legs towards his chest and placed his toes on the ground. Not waiting to think about it, he pushed himself slowly to his feet, grabbing at his hat that lay on the floor, just to the side of him
He stood swaying, his chin touching his chest, his eyes tightly shut as he fought the hardest battle hed ever had. Willing himself to stay upright and on his feet, he counted each painful breath that he took, forcing himself to concentrate on that instead of the blackness that threatened to overwhelm him.
Slowly, very slowly, the feeling that he was about to pass out left him, and he raised his head warily, taking slow, shuddering, breaths.
Hed done it! He couldnt believe he had actually done it! It hurt like Hell, but he was on his feet, now all he had to do was start walking. He slowly turned his head to look up at the incline he had fallen down the night before. There was no way he would ever get back up there, he would have to hope his tracking skills were still intact and stay on as much flat ground as he could.
He knew what he had to do next, but he wasnt sure he could do it. The pain in his body was unbelievable. Hell! Only a few days before, he had been worried about a few darn nightmares, and look at him now. He had been in some bad situations in his life, but this one beat them all.
"Yer a Tanner, and dont ya ferget it." The thought had popped into his head, and out of his mouth, unannounced. But he was glad it had. He didnt have time to feel sorry for himself now. His survival instincts were well and truly installed with that one small sentence and he looked ahead of him determinedly.
A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. Vin was startled by this latest piece of information that had entered into his head. Where did he pick that one up? He asked himself. "Aw who cares, its a good one." He said aloud. "Heck. Now Im talkin ta mself."
At least I didnt lose m hat, he thought as he slowly raised an arm and placed it on his head. He cleared his mind of everything else as he concentrated on that one step. Pushing his body forward, he dragged one foot and then the other through the dirt, ignoring the searing pain that ripped through his body.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan sighed as he and Ezra continued to ride on in silence. Since they had broken camp at first light, Ezra had not said a word, and that worried the healer. He knew his jaw must be aching something awful, but the look in the gamblers eyes told him that the problem was on the inside, not the outside.
"Ya wanna talk about it Ezra?" Nathan asked finally, glancing over at the still silent man, riding by his side.
Ezra turned his head slowly, looked fleetingly at Nathan, and turned back to look straight ahead. "No."
Nathan would not be put off. He was going to have enough trouble on his hands once they caught up with Vin and Chris, without this as well.
"This thing with Vin is eatin away at ya Ezra, I just wanna help."
Ezra was not used to being affected by other peoples feelings. This was all new to him, and he wasnt sure he liked it. But it was too late now. He was well and truly in the middle of this whole unfortunate episode, whether he liked it or not.
"Mr Jackson. I would be most grateful if we could just continue our journey in silence." he told the exasperated Nathan, not even looking in his direction.
Nathan pursed his lips angrily. " Dont know how long were gonna be out here Ezra, so ya might as well talk ta me. Ill only drive ya crazy by keepin on at ya."
Ezra turned an angry gaze on his companion, but bit back any response he might have made.
"Im not lettin this go, friend. Now, whats this plan you and Vin hatched that went so wrong? Whats all this about Vin and a poem?" Nathan knew he was pushing a little too hard, but he wanted to know what he was dealing with.
Ezra closed his eyes and took a steadying breath, before saying anything.
"I am sorry Mr Jackson, but I cannot reveal what transpired between Mr Tanner and myself. I made a promise and I intend to uphold that promise."
Nathan couldnt argue with that. He admired Ezra for his loyalty.
"Alright Ezra. Ill respect that." He said finally. "But I want ya to talk about this. Ya cant keep it bottled up. It wont do ya no good, and it wont help Vin neither."
Nathan waited for a response. Just when he was about to give up, he got one.
"He put his trust in me Nathan, and I failed him." The tremor in Ezras voice made the healer frown.
" Ezra." He said quietly. "Vins got a fever, he wasnt thinkin straight."
Ezra shook his head and was about to shoot Nathans theory out of the water when something ahead of him caused him to sit up straight in his saddle, and crane his neck in an effort to see better.
Nathan did not miss the change in the gamblers mood.
"What is it?" he asked as he followed Ezras gaze, and squinted to see what had caught his attention.
"Oh my God!" As he made the exclamation, Ezra dug his heels into his horses sides and spurred him into a gallop, with Nathan following closely on his heels.
The Gambler slowed his horse as he approached the object of his concern. Vins horse was standing under a tree, quietly grazing on the grass.
Ezra dismounted and walked slowly towards the horse, not wanting to spook him. Nathan was not far behind him, his eyes darting backwards and forwards looking for any sign of Vin.
"Its alright boy. Im not going to hurt you." Ezra whispered as he carefully approached the horse that had now realised he was not alone and was dancing around on the spot, nodding his head up and down, and snorting.
Ezra carefully reached out and took hold of the reins, patting Vins horse gently on the neck.
"Where the hell is Vin?" whispered Nathan in concern, "Theres no sign of him."
"I have a bad feeling that a disaster has befallen our comrade." Ezra whispered back, feeling guilt overwhelm him at the thought of what could have happened to Vin.
"We gotta find him Ezra." Nathan was worried out of his mind now. He had been worried before they found the horse, but now ..Hell! Where was that damn crazy Texan?
"I can assure you Mr Jackson, you are not alone in that quest. Do not forget
that Mr Larabee is also out looking for Vin. He may have found him already. But believe me if he hasnt, between us, we shall find him, or die trying."
Nathan watched in wonder, stunned into silence by the vehemence in which Ezras last words had been spoken, as the gambler led Vins horse over to where the other two animals, previously abandoned by the two men, were waiting patiently.
Tying Vins horse to his saddle by its reins, Ezra climbed back onto his horse. He looked at Nathan expectantly, where he stood, as if in a trance.
"Mr Jackson." he began, his voice not giving away the anxiety that he felt. "It would be helpful if you would remount your horse so that we might continue to hunt for our wayward friend."
Nathan blinked, realising that his mind had been miles away. Running to his horse, he climbed into the saddle and the two men resumed their search, once more in silence.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah walked towards the church and was not surprised to see JD sitting on the steps outside. As he approached, JD looked up, a faltering smile on his lips.
The preacher had been expecting this since he had got up that morning. JD had not been able to settle; his thoughts were with the five men who had ridden out the day before.
"Good Morning, Brother." Josiah greeted the younger man as he sat beside him on the steps.
"Josiah?" The older man could not suppress a smile as he realised JD was going to come right to the point.
"Yes Son." Josiah replied expectantly.
"Ive been thinking on what ya said yesterday about Vin."
"And, did it bear any fruit?"
JD sighed, "No. It just made me feel worse."
Josiah laid a hand on JDs arm. "I know its hard to believe right now Brother, but things will right themselves. It might just take a little time."
"How do you know Josiah?" The preacher looked at the young man beside him, who looked so much like a boy at that moment, his eyes big and questioning, longing to be given all the answers.
"These men are special people JD. Oh I dont mean theyre saints, they are far from that, but deep down they are good. And I have faith in them. Just by the way they rode out after Vin should tell you that they wont give up on him without a fight."
JD mulled this over. "What if Vin wont listen?"
"He will, eventually."
Josiah thought for a moment before he said more.
"JD, the things that have happened lately have built up to this ." He wondered how he could explain things better. "Did you ever play dominoes?"
"Yeah, I did."
"Well, imagine that each thing that has happened over the last little while was a domino that has been stood up on end, and believe me JD, a lot has happened."
"Oh, I know Josiah." JD interrupted.
Josiah squeezed the young sheriffs arm and continued. "When everything came to a head, because of the first problem, the first domino fell over, and when that one fell it hit the next one, making that fall, and so on until none of the dominoes were left standing."
"Sorta like a knock on effect?"
"Thats right son. Well, with a little patience each domino can be picked up and stood up on end again. But this time, maybe a little more thought would go into building the line of dominoes .."
"To make it stronger!" JD exclaimed in triumph.
Josiah chuckled. "You got it JD!"
"So, what your sayin is that we can all help rebuild the wall of dominoes, and at the end of it, with any luck, we would have sorted out the problems, and they would have disappeared."
"There ya go." Josiah said, a beam on his face.
"Thanks Josiah, I feel a lot better now."
"Im glad JD. Im real glad."
+ + + + + + +
Vin didnt know how much longer he could keep going. He was fighting for every step he took. He was in enough pain just by performing the simple task of putting one foot in front of the other, but when he had to contend with the ever present cough, he could hardly keep himself from falling in a heap never to rise again.
The going was slow, but he was making progress. He knew he was heading in the right direction, back to Four Corners. He just hoped he would find Chris before he got there.
A movement in the very far distance caught the sharpshooters eye and he raised his head a little more and tried to focus on the object that had grabbed his attention.
It looked like Buck!
He groaned. Why did it have to be Buck? He didnt want him to see him, but he didnt want to have to get on the ground and hide either.
He resigned himself to the fact that Buck was bound to spot him, and staggered onward, his eyes never leaving the distant figure. He was not able to stop the slight feeling of relief that he felt, even though he knew that he and Buck were obviously not good friends.
As he stumbled through some thick scrub and dried branches, there was a flash of light. Looking in the direction that it had come from he could not believe his eyes as he saw that it was Bucks gun that had caused the sudden flash, the sun having caught the metal.
His eyes widened in horror and disbelief as he realised the gun was aimed at him.
+ + + + + + +
Buck fell once more to the ground, chuckling uncontrollably. He had consumed the remains of the bottle of liquor and was once again very drunk.
He had decided a while before that it was about time he continued his search for Vin, and so he had tried to climb into his saddle. Again and again he tried. But, each time, had fallen in a heap on the floor. It was after yet another of these attempts that he spotted something some distance away and, clambering to his feet he squinted, trying to make it out.
It was Vin!
The excitement left him as quickly as it had come.
Darn it! It was just more of them dry branches and bushes.
"I wanna find Vin, not another damn tree!" he yelled at the sky as he grabbed at his gun, that had somehow got stuck in its holster.
Finally freeing his weapon, he manoeuvred his arm until his gun was pointed at the object of his frustration.
He closed one eye to get a better aim, and when he got his arm to stay as still as it ever would while he was drunk, he pulled the trigger.
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