"Have to make camp soon, pard," Vin Tanner said to the quiet spoken man riding along side him.
Larabee nodded. Why waste energy on words when a nod or shake of the head would do. In fact, when he was communicating with Vin he found a look would suffice. Neither man was strong on words, thats why they enjoyed each others company so much.
The trip to Yuma prison had been an arduous one, especially as their single prisoner had been so uncooperative. None of the seven had actually wanted the job assigned to them by Judge Travis, but only Nathan had a plausible excuse to stay in town. There was an outbreak of chicken pox amongst the children and he was needed to tend to them.
To stop any arguments amongst the others, Chris had used a democratic way of deciding which of them went; they drew straws. Larabee had given a wry smile when hed picked out the first short straw, but the smile turned to relief when Vin drew out the second one. It wasnt that Chris didnt appreciate the others company, but at least with the tracker hed get peace and quiet.
Now they were close to home. Two more nights and hed be sleeping on a proper bed, not the hard ground of the mountain pass they were travelling through. He rubbed his head, hoping the headache hed acquired during the last hour would disappear once theyd settled down for the evening.
"Whats wrong cowboy?" Vin asked, noticing the strain on Larabees face.
"Just a headache from having to concentrate on this path," Chris explained, wondering if Tanner was also suffering.
The path in question was narrow and rocky and the two horses were having trouble traversing it. One wrong step and the ravine to the right of them would claim man and beast, and Chris was very close to the drop.
"How much longer before it opens up onto the mesa?"
"Couple miles, up around that bend." Vin nodded towards the turning in the distance.
"Think well get there fore nightfall?" Chris didnt fancy being on the treacherous path once it was dark. It was a new trail to him and one that he wouldnt be using again. Vin had suggested it because it took two days of the trip home, which at the time had sounded good to Chris. Now he wasnt so sure!
"Yep " Vin smiled at the blond, " . dont ya trust me?"
"You, yes this path .no " Chris was just about to make another comment when a bullet impacted with his right shoulder, "Aaagh!" He hung onto the reins with his left hand, but another bullet smacking into the ground in front of his horse caused the animal to spin precariously near to the edge of the trail. Then it reared up and Chris cried out in terror as he fell from the creature and tumbled down the ravine.
Vin Tanner, stunned into action, tried to un-holster the mares leg that fit snug to his thigh at the same time as he reached out to try and grab hold of his falling companion,
"Chris!" he yelled as he watched, unable to save his friend from disappearing into the shadows.
Dismounting from his own terrified horse, Vin ran for cover, planting himself tightly against the rock face. Two more shots rang out and the horses galloped off into the distance, survival instinct taking over.
Haunted by the vision of Larabee falling into the chasm, the young tracker didnt hear the men approaching and before he had time to react, an ugly looking Mexican bandit was pointing a rifle at him.
"Buenos Dias, hombre." The bandit smiled, showing a row of rotten teeth under the thick moustache. "A pity about your amigo. I wonder if he can fly?" He laughed loudly at his own pathetic joke, then sobering up quickly, he pointed to the gun in Vins hand, "I will take that."
"Like hell ." Vin started to raise the gun, ready to fire, unaware of the other man whod crept up behind him. Searing pain gave way to unconsciousness, as he was pistol-whipped.
"Hell is where you are going, senor," the first bandit said as he bent down and retrieved Vins weapon. "Chico, go fetch the horses," he told the younger bandit, and while he waited for the boy to return he rifled through Vins pockets, stealing anything he could find. "The patron will be pleased with us," he said to the unconscious man. "I expect a large reward."
Wandering over to the edge of the ravine, he glanced down. With darkness fast approaching there was little for him to see. However, he had no doubt that the other mans broken body lay at the bottom of the chasm, soon to be devoured by the many predators that roamed the mountains.
+ + + + + + +
Chris Larabee, slowly regaining consciousness, opened his eyes. Groaning at the headache which had multiplied, a throbbing ache in his right shoulder and wondering why the world was suddenly upside down!
"What the!" He tried to move but changed his mind quickly when whatever he lying against started to slip away. Deciding that remaining still was a sensible option, Chris cleared his head and tried to remember what exactly had happened to him.
It didnt take long for the nightmare to flood his mind. Hed been shot! Fallen down a ravine! He was in a sorry mess! In addition, where was Vin? Had he also been shot? Was he lying at the bottom of the ravine, dead? Chris didnt want to contemplate the last thought.
The first thing to do was right himself then maybe hed be able to think more clearly.
Reaching up carefully, he discovered what had stopped him from falling to his death. His left leg was caught in a bush that was growing half way down the chasm. Nevertheless, any movement would mean disaster.
"Damn!" he cursed aloud, contemplating the next and most important move.
Although it was dark, there was a full moon, which lit up the area around him quite clearly. Gingerly moving his head from side to side, he searched for some means of escape. His eyes finally latched onto another bush, much sturdier than the one he was depending upon now. More importantly, some of its roots were showing; strong tendrils which he could hopefully hang onto with one hand while he freed himself with the other. If only he could reach them.
Taking a few moments to rest and ponder the problem, Chris carefully undid his gun belt and thigh strap, taking the guns from their holsters and tucking them down the front of his pants, not wanting to lose them. Very delicately, he tried to snare one of the tendrils with the buckle of his belt, hoping to drag it across to him. Ten minutes passed before he finally got the luck he deserved and the root was firmly clasped in his right hand. Testing the root, Chris was satisfied it would take his weight once he was free of the bush.
It seemed an eternity before he was completely untangled from it and facing the right way. Once his equilibrium had returned, Chris began to make the steady journey upwards. It was slow, torturous, and his shoulder throbbed in agony, but his steely determination won out and eventually his fingers clawed their way back onto the path.
Rolling onto the dirt trail, Chris collapsed to the ground in a dead faint.
+ + + + + + +
A vicious stinging slap brought Vin back to consciousness. He opened his eyes, staring up at the rotten toothed Mexican whod confronted him on the trail.
"Hey gringo, bout time you woke up."
Struggling into a sitting position, Vin found himself surrounded by three other horsemen. It was early dawn; they must have been travelling through the night. There was no sign of Chris.
"Wheres my friend?"
"Dead. I saw his broken body lying near the bottom of the ravine," the Mexican answered coldly, enjoying the look of horror on the young mans face. "You look upset, was he a good friend?"
Vin didnt bother to answer, what would the bandit know of a friendship like theirs. Chris Larabee dead . It wasnt possible . Not possible.
There was another slap to his face. Unable to retaliate due to his hands being bound, Vin glared back at his captor. "Why? Who are you?"
"Me? No one senor." The bandit glanced up at his mounted companions, "Which one of you would like to share your horse with our guest?"
The three riders ignored his question. The lead bandit shrugged, and taking a rope fastened to his belt, he fashioned out a noose and slipped it over Vins neck, tightening the knot just enough to make it uncomfortable for his prisoner. "Looks like youll have to walk from now on." Satisfied with his work, the Mexican pulled Vin to his feet, yanking at the rope when the tracker, still dizzy from the knock to his head, stumbled to his knees.
"Vamanos! Get up, now!"
Vin found his footing and balance and for the first time took stock of his surroundings. Their journey had taken them back down the mountain and from the placement of the sun, he could tell they were travelling south.
"Are we in Mexico?"
"Soon senor, we are going home."
The Mexican grinned coldly, taking great pleasure in the look of horror crossing Vins face when he said, "Home, to Purgatorio."
"Si Senor. My patron waits for us there. He is looking forward to meeting you."
The bandit, tired of talking, took the end of the rope and passed it to one of his companions. He then took hold of the reins to his own horse and threw himself onboard, taking the rope back and fastening it to the bull horn of his saddle. Kicking the horse forward, he began Vin's journey to hell.
The tracker struggled to stay on his feet as he was pulled along. His troubled thoughts flitted between the unbelievable news of Chris death and his own destination; Purgatorio.
+ + + + + + +
Chris woke up to the sound of something sniffing and slobbering quite close to him. He lay still although his first thought was to run. The creature was near to his feet; it was probably checking out its prey before attacking it, the smell of blood exciting its senses.
Knowing hed only get one chance at the beast, whatever it was, Chris carefully raised himself up, pulling one of his guns free from his pants. He could almost smell the rank breath of the beast; see the saliva drooling down its mouth.
The animal gave a triumphant growl as it prepared to strike. Chris, moving like a cat himself, turned and fired; one two three shots.
It fell dead at his feet. A mountain lion on the look out for an early breakfast! Chris kicked it, just to make certain it was dead. An overwhelming sense of relief quickly turned to nausea when he realised that, for the second time in just a few short hours hed cheated death. He turned to one side and retched violently, then struggling to his feet he staggered towards the mountainside keeping as far away from the ravine as possible.
Chris was torn between moving on, looking for help or staying where he was until the daylight was strong enough for him to search for his companion. Common sense won out. If Vin were lying alive, at the bottom of the chasm, how would Chris be able to help him? There was a lasso attached to Vins saddle, but the horses were nowhere in sight. For all Chris knew they too were dead, victims of other predators that roamed the mountains.
The sensible thing to do was carry on with the journey. Vin had mentioned a small town that nestled at the base of the mountain, with luck he could find help there.
Thump, thump; thump, thump; the rhythmic beat of Vins heart kept him moving as he ran at a steady pace along side the horse. Theyd been on the trail for over an hour without slowing. Occasionally the bandit turned and checked on his prisoner, grinning with delight to find the young man healthy enough to keep up with the animals trot.
Slowing down to a walk, the Mexicans finally pulled up close to a deep, slow moving river. Vin, presuming hed get a respite was shocked when the Mexican looked down at him,
"Can you swim?" he asked through his toothless grin, laughing as he kicked his horse forward, yanking Vin into the water.
The tracker panicked as he was dragged under the water. Kicking out with his legs, he managed to get his head clear of the river and fill his lungs with air, but the respite was short-lived and he was soon under the current again.
Just as he thought his lungs were going to burst, the riders reached the far side of the river and he was dragged onto the embankment. He lay in the mud, spewing out the water that had begun to seep into his lungs, hoping hed be given time to recover before the journey resumed. This time his hopes were realised.
The bandits dismounted, leading the horses to a small copse of trees. Vins rope was unfastened from the saddle and tied short to fallen tree trunk. He crawled next to the decaying wood, collapsing from exhaustion, unable to put up a fight when of his captors came over and tugged his sodden boots off.
+ + + + + + +
Before Chris could travel anywhere, he had to tend to his shoulder. Doing a cursory examination, he found that the bullet had passed right through, so he was optimistic thered be no infection in the wound. Tearing strips from his shirt, he used them to pad and bind the injury. Then he slipped his black jacket back on and started to follow the path, hoping it would soon lead out onto the plateau Vin had mentioned.
Just over an hour later, exhausted and in agonising pain, Chris sighed with gratitude when the mesa spread out before him. It was as beautiful as Vin had described, with lush grass bending lazily in the cool mountain breeze and a small stream wending its way down the mountainside quite close to where he stood. However, the most beautiful sight to Chris was the two dark figures grazing not fifty feet from where he stood. The horses looked unaffected by their ordeal and were enjoying their meal. They lifted up their heads simultaneously when Chris approached, accepting the man as one of their herd, and they didnt move as he quickly but quietly checked them over for any injuries.
His own horse was slightly lame having cast a shoe, but Vins horse was sound. Taking a canteen from Vins saddle, Chris drank a copious amount before filling it back up with the fresh stream water, then searching through the saddlebags he found some strips of beef jerky to chew on. It wasnt substantial, but it would have to manage him until he found the town. Hopefully it would have a telegraph office. A message to Four Corners would soon bring the rest of the Seven to help with the search.
+ + + + + + +
By the time they reached Purgatorio, Vin was all but crawling behind the horse and rider. His bare feet were bloodied and blistered, his hands numb from being fastened tightly and his neck red raw from rope burns. The bandits led their prize down the main street of the town, receiving cheers and applause from the itinerant townsfolk. Vin Tanner was known personally to some of them and they wanted to see him dead.
Pulling up outside one of the cantinas, they tethered their horses and dragged their prisoner inside, ordering four beers from the skinny looking bartender. They walked over to one of the empty tables and settled down to wait for their patron. Vins rope was attached to the table leg and thankful for the respite he crawled under the table, curled up and fell into an exhausted sleep.
+ + + + + + +
The man riding the prancing grey horse looked out of place in the hellhole known as Purgatorio. He wore dark blue jacket and pants, parts of which were adorned with bright, ornate silver buttons. His ruffled shirt was pristine white and a blue silk sash accentuated his slender waist, which was in marked contrast to his broad shoulders. His olive coloured skin was smooth, except for a pencil thin moustache that adorned his pouting lips and his slick black hair was brushed back, intensifying the cruel look from his dark brown eyes.
As he passed by the men and women of the town he sneered at their grovelling; amused at the way they called out his name in adoration.
"Don Sebastian! We are honoured!"
"Long live Calderone!"
"Patron! It is good to see you again!"
Ignoring the calls, he headed towards the same cantina where Vins captors were drinking. Dismounting, he passed the reins of his horse to a small child that had appeared from out of the shadows. Passing the child a peso he told the rest of his group to remain mounted, then he entered the cantina.
"You have succeeded?" he spoke directly to the broken toothed man as he walked over to the table.
"Si, Don Sebastian," the bandit answered proudly, "It was easy."
"Where is he?"
The bandit unfastened the rope attached to the table and dragged Vin out from his resting-place, waking the tracker up in the process.
Sebastian Calderone smiled in triumph. "Very good. And the other one .. Larabee. He is dead?"
"Bueno." Taking a money pouch out of his jacket, he threw it onto the table, "Theres your payment." He held out his hand "I will take him now."
The ugly bandit had no more interest in his prisoner now that hed been paid, "Thank you patron. If theres anything "
"Nothing." Calderone exited the tavern, dragging his new acquisition behind him. He handed the rope to one of the mounted men, then hoisted himself onto his own animal.
Once more Vin Tanner was paraded through the streets of Purgatorio, but this time there were no calls of derision. He was Calderones property now and no one would ever show disrespect to their patron.
Hardly conscious, Vin wasnt aware that hed been transferred to a small hacienda on the outskirts of town and he didnt realise hed stopped walking until he was thrown into a cage. A specially constructed cage, just for him.
Satisfied that his prisoner was too exhausted to make any trouble, Calderone locked the cage door and pocketed the key.
"Mano!" he called out, waiting impatiently for the recipient of the name to make an appearance, "Mano! Venga acqui!"
"I am here patron." An old man shuffled out of the hacienda.
Calderone pointed towards the caged man, "He stays in there until I return. No food, only water. And no one talking to him. Comprende?"
"Si patron . But what if he should become ill?"
"He wont, but if anything should happen to him the same will happen to you," Calderone warned the elderly man. "I have business elsewhere. I will return within three days." He snapped his fingers and his horse was led up to him, "Remember, no conversation with him. He is my property now, to do with as I wish."
Nodding humbly, the old Mexican wish Calderone a safe journey, then after taking a cursory glance at his guest, he returned to the coolness of the hacienda.
+ + + + + + +
The only hotel in the one horse town was a rundown affair, but at least the food was good and plentiful and the bed linen was clean. It wouldnt be up to Ezra Standishs high standard, but Chris wasnt intending for any of them staying there over night. Once his men had eaten, they were getting straight back on the trail. He was aware that Nathan wanted him to stay behind to recover from the gunshot wound, but Chris wasnt listening to anyones advice but his own. He knew exactly where to look for the tracker, and if Vins body wasnt at the bottom of the ravine, Chris intended heading the search for the missing man.
Chris rubbed at his aching shoulder. The town did have a supposedly qualified doctor, but diplomas didnt make up for the gentle care Nathan always exuded. When the healer had seen the way Chris shoulder had been butchered during surgery, hed wanted to face the towns medic down. Hed never seen such amateurish surgery, but Chris had quelled Nathans anger, telling him that as long as he could raise his arm to shoot a gun he didnt care about the beauty of the scar.
Larabee had been in town for two days now and was champing at the bit to get back out and look for his missing companion. The others understood his frustration but they and their animals needed rest. Theyd started out from Four Corners less than two hours after Chris telegram had arrived.
Although there was plenty of food on the table, the six men picked at it, their thoughts on Vin Tanner. When Chris had explained in person what had happened on the trail, theyd all come to the same conclusion; Vin Tanner was dead. Yet they saw hope in Larabees eyes and prayed for his sake that they were wrong.
Chris tapped the table irritably, glaring at Buck when he joked to JD about the lack of pretty girls in town.
"Aint no time for frivolity Buck; get yer brains outta yer pants!"
"Hell Chris, dont mean nothin by it. But whatever we find out there, life continues."
It wasnt what Larabee wanted to hear. With the speed of a rattlesnake, he reached out and dragged Buck over the table, causing the other men to stand up and move back.
"He aint dead, Buck! But if you feel youre wastin your time, stay here and find yourself a whore! Id hate to deprive you of your pleasure!"
"Why you " Buck grappled with his friend over the table, only to be dragged back by Nathan while Josiah manhandled Larabee.
"Arguing among ourselves wont help find Vin!" the eldest member of the group admonished the two friends, "Chris, go over to the stable, well be with you shortly. Buck, sit down and think before openin your mouth!"
Wilmington tugged himself free of Nathans grasp and slumped back in the chair. Josiah released Chris and was relieved to see the blond following his directions.
Once they were on the trail things settled down again. Chris and Buck rode together up front, their earlier argument forgotten
Ezra and JD being the lightest of the group, were lowered down the ravine wall to the bottom, where they searched amongst the rocks and undergrowth until dusk descended. Neither man had anything to report when they were hauled back up. No body; no sign of any body being attacked or eaten; nothing. The news brought a certain amount of relief, but it still left the unanswered question. What had happened to Vin Tanner?
+ + + + + + +
Vin found it difficult to walk. His feet were tender and blood oozed from numerous cuts. Tearing strips from his shirt, he wrapped the cloth around his feet, hoping to make movement easier. Once he was satisfied with his 'boots he struggled to his feet and began to pace around the interior of the cage, searching for any weakness: there was none to be found.
He was trapped like a wild beast, in a construction no larger than a jail cell. Except this prison was outside without protection against the elements.
Hed slept the night through and finally woken up around noon and tried to make conversation with the old Mexican couple whod stared at him with a mixture of contempt and compassion. He sensed they were afraid of someone, probably the man who owned the hacienda.
The house had seen better days, but compared to the rest of the buildings in Purgatorio it was a palace. Surrounded by a white adobe wall, with two large wrought iron gates that led out onto the main street of the hellish town. Hed never noticed the house before when hed journeyed to Purgatorio and now wondered why its owner would want him prisoner.
The couple had ignored his questions and after a time theyd gone back to the hacienda leaving him to suffer from the heat.
"Got yerself in a mess, pard," he said to himself sadly, "Aint no cowboy goin to come to the rescue this time."
+ + + + + + +
Having made camp on the mesa, the six men huddled around the fire, discussing their next move.
"We have to presume that the malefactors who shot you were only in pursuit of Mr. Tanner," Ezra said aloud, voicing all their thoughts.
"Could be someone after the bounty on Vins head," Buck continued to verbalise the shared thoughts.
"One of us should ride over to Tascosa," Josiah added.
Chris nodded in agreement, "Buck, you and JD start out first light. Nathan, you and mell continue down into Mexico, just in case. Ezra and Josiah, you visit all the local towns around here. Someones got to have seen Vin." He threw the cold dregs of his coffee onto the fire, "Well meet back at Four Corners in one week."
"What if we do not find Mr. Tanner within that time?"
"Then we regroup and start again." Chris eyes narrowed as he looked at each of the others, "I wont rest til I find out what happened to Vin. Hed be the same if it were any of us."
"Dont worry Chris, were all in agreement." Buck glared sharply at Ezra, warning him to be careful with his questions.
+ + + + + + +
"Do you know who I am?" the elegantly dressed Mexican asked Vin imperiously.
"Speakin to me?" the tracker asked dryly, refusing to be intimidated by the man. "Only I aint had no one talk to me these last coupledays. Beginnin to think I was invisible."
"This is the last time I will speak to you as a human being. Because I want you to know."
"Know? Know what? Why ya locked me up in this cage? Why yhad my friend killed?" Vin rattled the bars of his home, hoping to see a glint of some emotion in the Mexican, but there was nothing. Just a cold, arrogant stare.
"Vin Tanner, bounty hunter. The man who collected bounty on my brother and allowed him to die at the end of a rope."
"Your brother. Who?"
"Tucson. Does that ring a bell?"
"Tucson." Vin searched his memory; vaguely recalling the young Mexican whod been involved in a bank robbery there, "Your brother killed two innocent folk."
"It was none of your business. The local law would never have caught him." Finally showing emotion, Calderone stepped up to the bars, "My brother died at the end of a rope. "
"He paid fer what he done," Vin replied coldly, refusing to back down from the older man.
"And so will you." A thin smile appeared on the Mexicans face, "But I will not hang you. I want your suffering to last a lifetime." Nodding towards the four men who stood next to him, Calderone waited with anticipation as they entered the cage and circled their prisoner.
Though he was weak with hunger, Vin turned to face his adversaries, crouching low as he prepared to attack. The battle was short and bloody. Vin managed to injure three of the much larger men before the fourth man grabbed him from behind. Once his arms were pinned behind his back he was beaten repeatedly without mercy, then he was allowed to fall to the floor of his cage, a bloody mess.
Unable to defend himself, he was soon stripped of all clothing and left to lie naked and exposed. Calderone nodded to the four men, satisfied with their work. They left the cage, and passed the key to their leader.
Calderone called Mano over to him, knowing that the old man had stood watching from the shadows. He threw him the key to the cage, " Tend to him, give him his new clothes, then feed him. But no talking. From now on Vin Tanner does not exist."
"Si Patron." The elderly man bowed, his eyes narrowing as he watched Calderone and his thugs, three of them nursing their injuries, mount their horses and trot back into town and the nearest cantina.
The key in his hand burnt a hole in his soul as he walked over to the cage and looked sadly at the moaning, naked figure.
The young man, sensing he was there, stared up at Mano.
"Why?" he asked threw swollen lips, "Why this?"
Mano shrugged and shook his head. How did he know what went through Calderones devilish mind? Selfishly, Mano was just glad it wasnt he suffering his patrons anger. His body was old and frail, it couldnt have taken a beating of such magnitude. The boy in the cage was strong; his body lithe and finely muscled, better he take the punishment.
As the old man returned to the hacienda to gather hot water and towels he wondered how much pain the prisoner could endure, for knowing Calderone, the younger mans torture would become increasingly violent.
Though Vins injuries caused him much pain and his predicament troubled him, his main thoughts were still on Larabee. They had been since being informed of Chris death.
He still couldnt believe his friend was gone. His best friend, one of the handful of people hed ever allowed to get close to him.
Chris was dead. Probably half eaten by now; dinner for a marauding mountain lion. It didnt seem possible. Hed come to believe Chris Larabee was invincible.
What would the others do when he and Chris failed to return? Theyd search for them, but without knowing of Vins shortcut through the mountains, they wouldnt know where to look and eventually theyd have to give up. Then what? Would the five remaining peacekeepers continue to protect Four Corners?
Probably Josiah and Nathan would stay on, their lives seemed settled there, but he doubted the others would. Ezra would go in search of richer pickings while Buck and JDd go off on some adventure together, just what Vin had been hoping he and Chris might do one day, once Vins name had been cleared.
Now he had no future except being the punch bag of Calderone and his men. With luck, hed die soon; life without Chris Larabee wasnt worth the effort.
Bringing his mind back to the present, Vin was suddenly aware of someone wiping the blood from his face. It was the old man. Calderone had called him Mano. He had a benign countenance and his callused hands were gentle in their touch.
Also becoming conscious of his nakedness, Vin blushed when he saw other faces peering at him through the bars; two of them female. The young woman was staring at him brazenly, her dark eyes lingering over his bruised flesh. The elderly woman looked far more compassionate and in her hands, she held something made of hide. He wasnt sure what.
He eased himself into a sitting position, bringing up his knees to cover his groin, the sudden movement causing Mano edge away. The old man was unarmed and although the cage was locked from the outside, the key safe with his wife, he couldnt be certain that the prisoner wouldnt attack him. However Vin was too bone weary, too weak and an innate sense of honour forbade him to hurt the elderly man who was just as much a prisoner of Calderone as he was.
Once the wounds were clean Mano rubbed a healing salve into the cuts, yet he never spoke to the young man and never acknowledged him when Vin tried to strike up a conversation. When hed finished his task, Mano indicated to his wife to pass the hide through the bars to him, then he threw it down to the naked man.
Vin frowned as he picked it up before realising what it was.
"I wont wear this. I want my own clothes back! "He threw the breech back at Mano, "You tell Calderone I wont wear it!"
Mano dropped the single item of clothing to the floor then shuffled over to the door. His wife was soon there, unlocking it for him. They spoke quietly in Spanish as they made the cage secure once more, then the elderly woman walked over to the still staring girl and shooed her back towards the hacienda.
Nathan was glad he was riding with Larabee. The gunshot and butchered surgery had taken its toll on the gunslinger but he never complained and only rested when Nathan threatened to shoot him! They were leading Chris mount, which was still showing slight lameness. Riding Vins horse was also causing pain to Larabee. The spirited animal was completely different from his own docile creature and the horses exaggerated action was extremely bouncy. Nathan had offered to swap mounts but Chris declined.
On the second day of their search they rode into the notorious town of Purgatorio, with Chris warning Nathan to be careful. The locals remembered Larabee from before; they knew of his reputation. However, their fear of Calderone outweighed any fear of the blond gunslinger.
+ + + + + + +
The prisoner was dragged from his cage, fighting every bit of the way. He was bound and gagged, then thrown into the haciendas cellar. As there was no explanation given, he postulated numerous ideas, finally arriving at the most promising conclusion. Someone was in Purgatorio; someone who could recognise him. Probably Buck and the boys searching for him and Chris.
Chris. Each time the gunslingers name entered his head, Vins thoughts deepened. Chris was dead because of him. It was a guilt too heavy to carry. It would be best if the others didnt find him. At least theyd be safe. Staring a miserable future in the face, Vin huddled against the earthen wall of the cellar, his broken heart aching.
Chris and Nathan entered the cantina and ordered food and beer. The looks they received from the other customers at the bar would have wilted lesser men but Larabee and Jackson took it in their stride, knowing not to show any weakness in front of the locals.
They asked the bartender if hed seen their friend or heard any rumours about him only to receive a nervous shake of the head. Chris wasnt surprised by the show of nerves. In a town like Purgatorio, it was best to keep quiet.
"Once weve eaten well take a stroll around town," Chris told Nathan while they waited for their meal to arrive.
When the cantina doors swung open a few minutes later, Nathan glanced across at the newcomer, surprised to see a well dressed Mexican walking over to their table.
"Buenos Dias, senors. My name is Don Sebastian Calderone," He said with a flourish, "I own a hacienda on the outskirts of town."
Chris gave the newcomer the once over, taking an instant dislike to the man. Quelling his revulsion, he nodded over to the healer, introducing him. "Nathan Jackson Im Chris Larabee."
"You need no introduction, senor. Your reputation precedes you. Are you just passing through?"
"Lookin fer someone. A friend."
"Maybe I can assist. As you may gather, there is not much going off around here that escapes me."
"Shouldnt think there is," Chris replied coldly before continuing, "Vin Tanner. Bout my height, younger though. Long straggly hair. Dont carry much weight. Wears a buckskin coat, slouch hat maybe hurt."
Calderone pondered for a moment, "I would remember someone who looked like that." He shrugged, "I am sorry, but I will ask around. People here will talk to me sooner that two gringos," he said apologetically.
"Well be movin on in the mornin."
"Then you must come to my house for supper. My cook is excellente!" Calderone kissed his fingers with anticipation.
"No need fer that."
"But I insist gentlemen. Follow the main street north. My hacienda is behind two large iron gates. I will tell my guard to expect you . Say, seven oclock?"
Chris looked at Nathan, hoping for the healer to come up with an idea to negate the suggestion. Instead he got a wide-eyed shrug. Smiling thinly, Chris said, "Fine, seven oclock."
Pleased with the conversation, Calderone said goodbye before turning to walk out of the cantina, pausing only to inform the bartender that there would be no charge for anything the two men wanted.
Calderones smile faded the moment he exited the cantina. When hed been told about the two men asking about Tanner hed been expecting to find two more of the gun fighters who helped protect Four Corners, not Chris Larabee looking very much alive and well. The men whod captured Tanner had assured him that Larabee was dead. The fools!
Once over his initial shock, the Mexican hadnt meant to be so friendly with the blond gunslinger and his Negro companion, but hed changed his mind when he realised how much they cared for their missing tracker. It suited his perverted sense of humour to invite the two men for a meal, making their stay comfortable, while the unfortunate Tanner suffered pain and humiliation.
When he reached the hacienda Calderone told Mano about the guests he was expecting for dinner.
The elderly man couldnt help asking, "Is that such a good idea?"
Crack! Mano fell back against the wall, blood pouring from his lip; cut by the riding crop Calderone always paraded about with.
"Dont question me again!" Calderone growled at the cowering man, "Tell that wife of yours I want the meal to be perfect with only the best wine on the table." Noticing Manos blood on the tip of the crop, Calderone wiped the leather down the old mans shirt, "Wheres Juanita?"
Manos eyes widened at the mention of his daughters name; what did his employer want of her? "She is in the kitchen with her mother."
"Make sure she looks pretty for tonight. I want her to entertain my guests." Calderone could see the anger sparkling in the old mans eyes and silently dared him to speak up, "Well?!"
Mano bowed, "I will tell her, patron."
Satisfied with the evenings entertainment, Calderone called for Carlos to join him.
"Bring Tanner to me. Im bored."
A few minutes later Vin was dragged into the elegant living room and thrown in front of the
chair where Calderone sat.
"Take off his gag and untie him, he isnt a threat."
Vin was hardly aware of his situation. He was shivering uncontrollably, the damp air of the cellar seeping into his naked body.
Calderone frowned at the prisoners lack of clothing, "Why isnt he wearing the breech?"
Carlos, his arms flailing dramatically, replied, "He refuses to wear it! Each time we force it onto him he rips it off again."
"He does? Maybe he prefers being naked. After all, he is an animal now, no longer human." Calderone stood up and struck the riding crop against Carlos shoulder. "Bring it here and put it on him. If you need assistance, send for Chico, hes outside with the horses."
Rubbing his stinging shoulder, Carlos backed away secretly vowing to make the prisoner suffer for his own pain.
Sitting back down Calderone watched in silence, as Vin became more aware of his surroundings.
The tracker had flinched automatically when hed heard the crop crack, half expecting the leather to sting across his back. His eyes were still adjusting to the light after spending the last few hours in the coal black cellar. Finally focusing on the view before him, Vin became aware of a pair of white leather boots, adorned with silver buckles and spurs. Frowning, he wondered how the owner of the boots kept them so clean! Giggling at the ridiculous thought, Vin was brought painfully back to reality when the crop hed just been so worried about smacked against his arm.
"You will be silent in my presence!"
Vin gazed upwards towards the voice, staring straight into the cruel eyes of Calderone.
"Wonderin how ya kept them fancy boots clean," Vin drawled, ignoring Calderones warning.
There was another crack! This time the leather connected with Vins naked back. He shuffled back, trying to escape the whips reach. The Mexican glared at his prisoner, raising his arm to strike once more; then changing his mind he smiled thinly at the pathetic creature before him.
"There are visitors, here in Purgatorio. Looking for you."
So Vin had been correct in his assumption, his friends were searching for him. "Better hope they dont find out its you that had Larabee killed."
Calderone stood up and took a step forward, raising the whip high. Twice the leather bit into the trackers back. Yet still he refused to be silent.
"Aint got no fear of dying. Have you, Calderone?"
"Who says Im going to kill you?" the Mexican replied angry at being forced into a conversation with Tanner.
Vin understood the underlying threat, "Ygot me, aint that enough?"
Ignoring the question, Calderone returned once more to the comfort of his chair. "Ive invited the strangers for dinner. I offered my assistance in searching for you." He leaned forward out of his seat and pointed the whip at his prisoner, "It can be a pleasant evening for them. Good company, good food and wine even a girl to entertain them. Or " Calderone left the threat unsaid.
At that moment Carlos and Chico entered the room; Carlos was carrying the breech.
"I dont think well have any trouble," Calderone said pleasantly when Carlos passed the attire to the tracker.
Vin held the soft deerskin in his hands. If he gave in now, hed have no self-respect left. However, if he didnt accede to Calderones demands his friends might die.
It took less than a minute to pull the paltry piece of clothing on. He stood in front of the Mexicans.
"Thats much better. I dont want Manos daughter getting any ideas about you."
"Why, are ya jealous?" Vin asked with a raised eyebrow.
Calderone had heard enough. Clicking his fingers he ordered his men to force Vin onto his knees, then he backhanded the tracker, twice. The diamond encrusted ring he wore sliced into Vins face and blood poured from the cuts and trickled into Vins mouth.
"That is the last time you speak to me unless I allow it!" Calderone gripped Vins chin in a vice like hold, "If another word passes from your lips Ill have your tongue cut out. Do you understand me, boy!"
Unable to speak or nod his head, Vin blinked twice in answer.
"Good!" Calderone shoved him to the floor; hed grown tired of his toy. "Take him back down the cellar. Tie and gag him." Straightening his jacket, Calderone gave one more warning to the younger man, "Any sound from you and your friends will die, just like Larabee!" He smiled to himself as Tanner was hauled away. Thinking Larabee was dead hurt the tracker more than any physical pain, so why tell him the truth?
Larabee ate the meal without enthusiasm. The food was excellent but the company, apart from Nathan, was poor. Their host was full of his own self-importance, boasting about the wealth hed inherited and how he enjoyed the good things in life.
"Then why live in Purgatorio?" Nathan asked bluntly, disliking the man for the way he treated his servants.
Chris covered a smile with his hand. Nathans forthright attitude was always a breath of fresh air.
"I have another home, further south. My mother lives there. But Purgatorio is so exciting, do you not think so?"
"Dont set my heart beatin any faster. Its just a haven for thieves and murderers," Nathan replied blankly.
"And which category do I fall into?"
Just about to say both, Nathan saw Chris slight shake of the head so he backed down from an answer.
Chris didnt. "You know what they say; lie with the devil "
Calderone smiled thinly at Chris accusation as they stared at each other across the table.
Eyes sparkling with anger, Calderone clapped his hands and a pretty young Mexican girl entered the dining room. She smiled coyly at the two gringos.
"This is Juanita. Pretty isnt she?"
"Yes, she is," Chris answered honestly, hoping Nathans temper wasnt going to boil over. "Think its time we were goin. Its a long ride home tomorrow."
"Oh, I thought you could stay here the night. Keep Juanita warm."
Nathan had heard enough. Standing up sharply he threw his napkin down onto the table, "I caint stomach any more."
"Neither can I, Nathan," Larabee agreed as he followed Jackson to the outer door. "Thanks for the meal, Senor Calderone . At least that was pleasant." He smiled sadly at the girl, wondering whose bed shed be warming that night.
"Have you given up the search for your friend so soon?"
Larabee bristled at Calderones question. "Ill never give up on him," he said before exiting the hacienda, slamming the door behind him.
Nathan was already on his horse, "Caint stand the stench of this place anymore!"
"Wanna make tracks tonight Nate?" Larabee asked as soon as he was in the saddle.
"Yeah, get me some clean fresh air. Sorry I couldnt hold back in there any longer Chris. I know you wanted to ask him about Vin."
"He didnt know anything about Vin. Just wanted to show off to a couple of strangers. Wasted our time." Larabee kicked his horse forward. Hed had enough of Purgatorio and Calderone
+ + + + + + +
Juanita glanced nervously at Calderone. Did her patron wish her to stay? Sensing the girls
uncertainty and finding it irritating, Calderone snapped, "Get out of my sight!"
"Si, patron!" The young woman sighed with relief; her innocence was still intact, but for how much longer? Calderone and her own father had been willing to sacrifice her to the two gringos.
Thankfully, both strangers had shown her more respect than her own kin had, and their distaste at how shed been treated was blatantly obvious. Not daring to look again at Calderone, in case he changed his mind, she fled from the room.
Calderone was seething. The Negro had been especially disparaging towards his host. How dare a former slave act like that! And Larabee had agreed with the black man. Nevertheless, the last laugh was on them. While theyd been partaking in the luxurious meal, the friend they were searching for was less than twenty feet away.
They wouldnt be returning to Purgatorio, there was no reason to. So now, Vin Tanner belonged exclusively to him; body and soul. The young man would pay dearly for his part in sending Calderones brother to the gallows. His life would become one long nightmare and Calderone would garner delicious pleasure from his revenge.
As the Mexican lost himself in a bottle of Tequila, he pondered the numerous ways he could torture and humiliate Tanner. He smiled cruelly as he contemplated each hurt.
Bound and gagged, Vin had tried to listen to the conversation going on in the room above him. He was sure he could hear Nathans voice, but the other man sounded muted, quiet; like Chris. But it couldnt be Chris; he was dead. It was probably Josiah. The other threes voices would be distinctive, and in Bucks case, loud.
Silently, Vin cried out to Nathan and Josiah, hoping to reach out to them on some spiritual level. But they werent Chris. Larabee would have sensed him, Vin was certain of that.
Eventually, the voices drifted away and Vins tenuous thread of hope was lost. He shivered uncontrollably. The cool air surrounding him was only part of the reason. He was truly alone now.
Having spent most of his life without a family, he accepted loneliness. But since becoming embroiled with the six men he now considered close friends, Vin no longer led a solitary existence and thought of it lay heavy on his heart.
Presuming hed been forgotten about for the night, Vin tried to make himself as comfortable as possible. The gag in his mouth was hurting and he was craving a cool drink of water. And the bonds were so tight he could hardly feel any sensation his hands or feet. Closing his eyes, he prayed for sleep and a short respite from the pain and misery, but it wasnt to be.
The cellar door opened and a shadowy figure holding an oil lamp, walked unsteadily down the steps towards him. It was Sebastian Calderone. His expression glazed with alcohol, but his intentions clear.
"Your friendsh haf left you," he slurred drunkenly, "The foolsh had no idea how near you were!"
Vin squinted up at his captor. Calderones figure cast an eerie shadow across the stone floor.
"They wont be coming back here. They didnt sheem to like my hoshpitality!" Calderone laughed, his drunken breath clinging to the damp air. "My casa est su casha! I suppose a clever little man like you will know what that means?" Calderone crouched down on his haunches, close enough to Vin to be seen but far enough away in case his prisoner attempted to attack him. "Well in your case, its certainly true. My housh is your housh. Its also your hell! I hope you shurvive for a long time. I mean to make you shuffer." The Mexican stared coldly at Vin, "They found Larabees body. Half ravaged by marauding animals." He was pleased to see a flicker of pain cross Vins face. He would use Larabee as a way of torturing Vins mind whenever possible. "Theyll probably search for yours too. But when its not found theyll preshume you were consumed by the same beasht. And then.," Calderone sighed,
" . Youll be forgotten about. Itll be as if Vin Tanner never exshisted. And by the time Ive finished with you, youll be wishing the same.."
Staggering to his feet, Calderone called for Carlos and Chico to join him, then leering at his prisoner, he laughed cruelly as he explained. "I have a gift for you I know youll like it."
The two bandits came down the steps and walked over to the tracker. Vin saw something glinting in the older mans hand. Something metallic. As the man neared, the shape became visible. It was a collar; a metal collar. He backed against the wall, but it was a futile effort. While the younger man held onto him, the other bandit fastened the collar around Vins neck, fastening it with a padlock. Attached to the collar was a length of chain. Vins leash.
Calderone looked at the collar with approval. "It shuits you!" he joked, glaring at the other men until they joined in with his laughter, "Ive told my friendsh I have a new pet. Wait until they shee you." Before making his way back upstairs, the bandit leader smiled smugly, "Im going to enjoy watching you suffer."
Vin Tanner was already wishing he were dead.
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