Four Corners was busy. Thanksgiving had arrived and family reunions were in full swing. Mary Travis and Nettie Welles had got their heads together and decided to put on a meal for the seven lawmen of the town. The dinner would be held at Marys.
Chris had warned Mary that Vin might not attend, as he was still uncomfortable in company. Mary hoped the tracker would show up, because if he didnt attend, neither would Larabee. However, Nettie had assured her theyd both be there.
The elderly woman was correct and on the night of the meal all seven men sat down at the table, suitably dressed for the occasion. Nettie made sure she sat one side of Vin, while putting Chris on the other side. She wanted the young man to feel comfortable enough to enjoy himself.
Chris was proud of Vin; pleased with the trackers recovery, especially since his transferral to living at the church.
Josiah gave thanks for the food on the table, which he did so with his usual eloquence and Nathan was jokingly invited to slice up the turkey as he enjoyed cutting things up!
Vin glanced at the copious amount of food on the table, especially the large turkey and wondered how he was going to get through the liberal helping being placed on his plate by Nettie.
Never one for eating large meals, hed learnt to survive on the poorest of rations during his internment in Purgatorio and was finding it difficult to acclimatise to the rich and plentiful food everyone kept expecting him to eat.
Buck and JD tucked into the meal with their usual exuberance, after being warned sharply by the ladies at the table that talking through a meal was considered bad manners. There was no need to warn the others, as they were too involved in devouring their food.
Vin always felt uncomfortable eating in public, and was watching Ezras table manners carefully. The southerner had noticed, but showed no recognition of the fact, not wishing to embarrass his companion.
Once the delicious pumpkin pie had been eaten it was time for the men to return to work. Larabee expected it to be a busy, noisy evening and he wanted the men out on patrol as soon as possible.
"A most enjoyable repast. Ah present my appreciation to the chefs," Ezra said as he picked up his guns and hat that had been hanging up on the coat stand.
"That was great, Miz Nettie, Mary. Aint had me a proper Thanksgivin meal in years," Buck enthused, patting his full stomach. He joined Ezra at the door, "JD! Say goodnight to Casey. Well meet ya outside the saloon."
Blushing, JD took Casey to one side and whispered to her, then while her Aunt was looking, he kissed the girl on the cheek.
Nathan was the last to leave. Like Vin, hed never been privy to a Thanksgiving meal before and was overcome by the sense of family around him. He thanked the women, expressing his gratitude for a wonderful time. Josiah was returning to the church with Vin, but not until theyd assisted in the washing up.
"Least we can do. Come on Vin, you can help to."
The tracker followed the preacher into the kitchen where Nettie, Casey and young Billy Travis were already hard at work.
Mary walked out onto the porch with Chris, shivering as the November air wrapped around her. "It was a lovely evening. I havent seen Billy so happy ." She saw Larabee's faraway look; he too was remembering a time with his own family. "Im sorry, Chris."
"Dont be," he said sadly, as he spoke of his wife and son, " I wont ever let them go. Ive learnt to live with the pain. Aint hidin away in a whisky bottle no more."
Mary was surprised, not by the words Chris had spoken, but the fact that hed been willing to share them with her. Changing the subject, she smiled as she remarked, "Vins starting to look like his old self, but I wish hed eat more."
"Ha! Youre soundin like Nettie. Hes come a long way. Im proud of him."
"Anyone can see that. A pity he cannot recall who treated him so badly. What if they rode into Four Corners? We wouldnt know."
"Theyd better not show their faces round here. If I see anyone makin a wrong move towards Vin " Larabee's hand rested on his gun.
Mary shivered again, but not from the cold. Chris Larabee was a dangerous man, which added to his attraction. She often wondered what hed be like to live with. Quelling the thoughts as unrealistic, Mary said good night to Chris and walked back inside.
The town was beginning to liven up by the time Josiah walked Vin back to the church. The occasional weapon was fired as the cowboys became rowdier. Josiah rested his hand on Vins shoulder, hoping to keep him relaxed. Theyd all been witness to the panic in Vins eyes whenever he heard gunshots.
Once in church, Vin walked into the back room and lay down on the bed provided for him. He wrapped a pillow around his ears to deaden the noise.
Josiah settled onto his own bed. He felt guilty, not helping the others with their law enforcement, but he couldnt leave Vin; he wouldnt be expected to.
The preachers rest was rudely interrupted when firecrackers started exploding outside the building. Vin hurtled past him and into the church, knocking aside anything in his way. Screaming in terror he ran around the room, trying unsuccessfully to find a way out.
Josiah stood in the centre aisle, watching and waiting until the younger man exhausted himself. Vin saw the space under the pulpit and dove into it, curling up in a tight ball when more of the firecrackers went off. Walking over to him Josiah knelt next to his friend, listening sadly as Vin repeated "Master master master.." He was reliving a violent memory, tears streaming down his ashen face.
"Dear Lord .," Josiah prayed quietly, " ..help me to banish this boys demons. It aint right him sufferin like this."
"Master master .," the litany continued relentlessly.
Josiah accepted that the only person who could get through to Vin was Larabee, but he couldnt leave the tracker to go in search of the gunslinger. His prayers were answered a few moments later when JD entered the church, "Wow Josiah, what a night! Josiah?" He frowned when he saw the preacher kneeling next to the pulpit. "What ya doin there?"
"Vins hidin here. Scared to death. Damn fireworks. Find Chris, then see if ya can stop the noise."
"Sure," JD answered crisply as he went back out. Where had he seen Larabee?
Chris was at the church in minutes, but it took him nearly an hour to soothe his tracker. Vin had reverted to calling Chris master and he begged the gunslinger not to hurt him. When the noise finally ceased Vin calmed enough to be eased from his hiding place and returned to the back room. While Josiah made Vin a cup of herbal tea, Chris sat next to his friend on the bed and embraced him until the shaking ceased. No words were necessary. Eventually Vin quieted enough for rational thoughts to return, "Guess ya think Im a coward?" he said miserably.
"Aint thinkin nothin of the sort. Youll get over your fears, but it will take time."
"If only I could remember."
"We still got some of Kojays potion. Want to ?"
"No! No .." Vin shook his head violently.
"Very well then. How about talkin? Tell me what goes on in your head."
Vin raised his head from its resting place against Chris shoulder and he frowned as he tried to clear his thoughts. Neither man had heard the rest of the seven enter the church and when Chris looked up he saw four concerned figures huddled in the doorway to Josiahs private room.
"Aint gonna be no more shootin tonight, Vin," Buck informed the young man confidently. "Not unless its me doin the shootin."
Vin smiled his thanks to Wilmington. "Im spoilin everyones fun. Aint right."
"To hell with everyone else. Its you that matters pard."
"Maybe we should all move back into the church, brothers. Its gettin a mite crowded in here," Josiah opined as he passed Vin the mug of tea, smiling when he saw the grimace pass across the younger mans face. Nathans concoctions worked, but they always tasted disgusting.
The church provided the perfect setting for Vin to release the terror of his ordeal. Surrounded by close friends, he felt the security needed to open his heart.
"Dont know why I aint remembered this before."
"Maybe you werent ready then," Josiah explained.
"Aint so sure I am now," Vin replied nervously, "But I have to try." He drank some more of the odious tea before relating his nightmare.
"They got drunk one night. " Vin laughed mirthlessly, "Hell, they got drunk every night, But this particular time ." It all came back so vividly."Hey, look what I found in the cellar!" Pedro yelled as he stumbled into the yard, carrying a box, with four more bottles of tequila resting precariously on top of it.
Two of the bandits grabbed the bottles before they crashed to the floor when Pedro put the box on the table.
"Whatcha got?" Raoul asked as he gulped down the contents of one of the bottles.
The five men knew theyd be in trouble once Calderone and the rest of the gang returned. But what the hell! It was worth it.
Mano had gathered his wife and daughter and escaped the hacienda before the bandits became violent. Hed wanted to take the slave with him, but Vin had hidden himself away once the bandits had begun yelling.
The five men were completely inebriated after raiding Calderones well-stocked cellar
Pedro opened the box hed found and produced .
"Firecrackers!" Raoul enthused, setting them alight and throwing them in different directions, scattering the chickens and goats.
The mules inside the barn began to snort and stomp around their stalls, agitated by the noise outside and two terrified blue eyes peered out from behind the stack of hay, the mules fear fuelling his own.
When some of the fireworks exploded just outside the barn doors, the mules smashed out of their enclosures and hurtled out of the building and through the open gates. The bandits thought it highly hilarious and began shooting their guns in the air. Raoul suddenly remembered the other creature inhabiting the barn, "Hey, lets have some fun with the slave!"
"Si!" Pedro agreed with the idea and after ordering the gates to be closed, he told the other men to stand watch outside the barn door whilst he and Raoul went inside to search of their prey.
Giggling drunkenly, the two men slipped inside the building, calling out to the prisoner. "Boy! Slave! Where are you?" they called out in Spanish and English. "Come here boy, we have some supper for you."
Silence reigned. Raoul was angry, and taking out his gun, he began shooting towards the shadows. "Come here, now!"
"Youll kill him! Then Don Sebastian will kill us!" Pedro said fearfully.
"Ha! He wont know. Well take the body into the desert. Calderone will blame Mano for allowing the brat to escape."
"Sshh!" Pedro had heard a shuffling noise coming from the right of him, "Light a match."
Paoul did so and held the flame to where his companion pointed. The creature they were searching for was caught in the flickering light.
Vin shook with fear as the two men neared him. He tried to run, but the flailing chain caught in a hook and dragged him back. Triumphant, Raoul grabbed hold of the chain and hauled Vin out onto the yard, "Look here, mi amigos! We have someone else to join in with the party. Miguel, pass me a bottle of wine."
Vin struggled to escape. These men were noisy, violent and they struck terror into his heart, but he wasnt strong enough to fight back. Miguel held him down and Raoul forced the drink into him. Vin retched as the liquor hit his empty stomach and Raoul was furious when he was splattered with vomit.
"Youll pay for that!" he screamed, back handing the young man to the ground.
"I know what we can do." Pedro had been mulling over how the entertainment should progress. Taking some more of the firecrackers from the box, he attached them to Vins chain, then lighting them, he told his friends to stand back and they waited expectantly for the young mans reaction.
Vin stared at the new adornments, wondering what they were, then all hell broke out as the crackers exploded. The whistling, crackling noise, enveloping the prisoner. He ran about the yard, screaming in terror. Each time he neared one of the bandits theyd shoot at his feet.
"Look at him dance!" Raoul exclaimed loudly as he fired three shots.
They were so intent on their game, they didnt see the gates opening. Calderone, followed closely by Mano and four more men marched into the yard.
Hysterical by now, Vin tried to escape the noise and in doing so, he ran straight into Calderone.
"M mas .. master " He choked out, just before Calderones fist connected with the side of his jaw and his world turned dark
Vin was shaking badly as he finished recounting the events of that evening. His face was ashen, his breath laboured. Turning to Larabee, he said shakily, "How could I forget that?"
Larabees face was devoid of emotion. He couldnt answer his friend; couldnt console him. Tanners recollection of his tormentors name had filled the gunslinger with remorse.
Vin was shocked by Chris reaction, but before he could ask Larabee what was wrong, Nathan was in front of him, passing him a drink of water.
"Vin, the trauma must have been unbearable. You were terrified out of your mind."
Vin Tanner glanced around at his friends. They all looked horrified by the events hed experienced. JD had tears in his eyes. The tracker focused his attention on Wilmington.
"You Raoul looked like you Buck. Im sorry."
"Dont be son." The jovial mans face showed no sign of his usual humour. There was no smile, just a look of devastating sadness, "I wish to God I didnt remind ya of him."
"Leastways I know why " Vin looked shamefaced, " . Shouldve known youd never hurt me."
Buck knelt down before the younger man and reaching out to ruffle Vins untidy hair he was overjoyed when the tracker didnt flinch away from him, "Glad to have ya back, pard."
Vin smiled at Wilmington, then at the rest of the men gathered around him. All of his friends were there, except one.
"Chris?" Buck turned to look for his old friend, "Chris ?"
The gunfighter had gone; no explanation given. JD hurried to the open door and could see Larabee striding down Main Street towards the saloon.
"Aint surprised," Buck said on being told Larabees destination. "Awful thing to hear, specially about someone you care for."
"Think its more than that," Nathan said bleakly. "Lets go stop him drownin his sorrows in whisky. Ill tell yall bout it on way over to saloon Buck."
Intrigued by Nathans words, Wilmington followed the healer, while the other three men comforted their tracker.
By the time Buck and Nathan reached the saloon, Chris was half way down the bottle of Red Eye. He never acknowledged them as they stood by his side.
"Mind if we join ya?" Buck asked lightly as he indicated for two glasses to brought to them, "Only Nathan here is feelin pretty guilty. And followin your example hes gonna drown his guilt in cheap whisky."
"Go to hell, Buck. I aint in no mood."
"Oh, so the world stops turnin when the mighty Chris Larabee says so. That include Vins world?" Buck was treading on dangerous ground. Chris was as good with his fists as he was with guns.
"Vinll be fine."
"How do ya know?" Buck poured himself a drink from Chris bottle, "Oh, I forgot, you know everything. Only that aint true, is it Chris? Ya didnt know Vin was at Calderones hacienda. Well neither did Nathan; no one did. Hell Chris, theres been lotsa times I missed the truth, but I aint pretendin to be perfect!" Buck downed another whisky, "Then again, I aint the omnipotent Chris Larabee!"
Wilmington saw the fist swinging towards him and managed to duck. Nathan reached around and caught Larabees raised arm, his powerful grasp more than enough to still the enraged gunman.
"I feel like hittin somethin too," the black man admitted, "So how about facin me? Well slug each other tthe ground. Only it wont make neither of us feel any better."
Relaxing his stance, Chris glanced apologetically at Buck, "Im the one needs beatin to a pulp." He turned back to the bar, slamming his fist onto it, spilling the whisky. "I shouldve known he was there . Shouldve sensed him."
"Hell Chris, ya aint no mind reader. And if this Calderones as sneaky as ya say hed have had Vin well hidden."
"Shouldve know," Chris said again. "While we were eatin his fancy food, Vin was bein starved and beaten." This time his arm scythed across the bar; scattering bottles and glasses everywhere. "What kind of friend am I?"
"A carin one. Thats why yer goin across tthe church right now. Vin thinks hes at fault. Show him he aint." Buck waited with baited breath. Would Chris shy away from a confrontation with the young bounty hunter?
"Gonna have to tell him. Caint live with myself, otherwise."
Wilmington sighed with relief. Thank you Lord. he said silently.
"Id best come along with ya," Nathan offered as he finished his drink. "We both owe him an apology."
Wilmington stayed at the bar and ordered himself a bottle of whisky. Things had gone much easier than he expected.
Josiah sat close to Vin while Nathan and Chris expressed their regrets at having been in Calderone's home during the younger mans internment there.
No one was sure how hed react to the news, especially in his tired state of mind; yet it didnt surprise them when he smiled softly and said, "Werent no ones fault cept his .." Vins thoughts were clearing now that his nemesis had a name. "I can see him now. Cruellest eyes and smile of pure evil."
"Yeah, thats how I remember him," Nathan replied. "Vin, youve got a good heart. Im lucky to have ya as a friend."
Vin blushed furiously. He hated compliments; never felt worthy of them.
"My sentiments exactly," Josiah agreed. He stood up and patted the younger man on the shoulder. "Im goin to join the others for a night-cap. Nathans buyin."
"Yes brother Nathan, you are. Chris, Ill be back within the hour. If youd be so kind as to stay with Vin til then?"
Chris nodded his thanks to the preacher. Josiah understood the gunslingers need to spend some quiet time alone with his friend.
Vin walked over to the bed, pulled off his boots and stretched out on the thin mattress. "Tired," he mumbled.
"Aint surprised. Been a long day." Chris slumped onto the other bed. "You get to sleep. Ill watch over you."
There were still seeds of guilt in Chris mind, but if Vin could forgive him, then hed have to try and forgive himself.
+ + + + + + +
The sounds from the street no longer disturbed his rest; shadows along the walls of Josiahs humble dwelling didnt send him scurrying for cover. Vin stretched lazily on the warm bunk, blinking open his eyes as the outer doors closed behind a visitor. Raising himself on his elbows, Vin waited for the newcomer to appear in the doorway. He scolded himself for the shiver of fear that overcame him as the visitor reached his door and smiled softly as Josiah edged into the room.
"Good mornin." Josiah greeted him with what looked like relief in his eyes. He placed bacon, beans, and a wedge of fresh bread by Vins bedside.
"Mornin," Vin quipped, sliding his legs off the bunk as he sat up. Josiah sat next to him and put two mugs of coffee down on the floor.
"You hungry?" he asked, watching as Vin reached for the breakfast.
"Sure am," the tracker replied, breaking the warm bread. He hesitated before picking up the dish and fork, remembering the beatings such actions would provoke before. Steeling himself against such thoughts, Vin scooped up his beloved beans and began to eat.
Josiah watched him closely, speaking gently to his injured friend,
"Knew a man once, a good man. Lost his family in a fire one night." The preacher looked down to see hed got Vins attention. "Drifted in the wilderness for an eternity, never quite alive but then again unable to die." He took up a mug of coffee and rolled the bitter liquid around his mouth.
Vin gazed up at the preacher, "What happened to him?" he asked breathlessly, knowing instinctively that Josiah was talking about someone he should know.
Josiah smiled sadly, his words tugging at the trackers heart, "A man shouldnt be alone for so long, aint good for the soul. What began as grief had consumed him like the fire that killed his kin, werent nothing left of the man that walked away from his life that night."
Josiah took a deep breath, "Cursed with his own survival, he endured. A shell of a man attracting trouble like a magnet, inviting death with every dawn. Yet living long enough to see the shadows lengthen and night fall, and then there were the dreams." He stole a look at the tracker, saw how his words were drawing him in, Vin clutched at his chest, the food forgotten.
"Did he die?" Vin asked, accepting the mug of coffee Josiah offered him.
"No Vin, quite the contrary. He found something to live for."
"What What did he find?" Vin asked, moving closer to the preacher as Josiah wrapped his arm around the younger mans shoulders.
"Someone he couldve been once." Josiah rubbed Vins upper arm gently, "Sunlight to his shadow, so different yet so dependent on the other. They became inseparable, brothers in all but blood. Wounds that were thought to be fatal slowly began to heal."
Vin laid his head against Josiahs shoulder, he had an uneasy feeling about how the story was going but he couldnt break the spell.
"One day his friend was taken away from him, thought to be dead. He roamed the desert and towns searchin for his missin brother." Josiah stole a look at the man in his arms, could see realisation dawning on his face. "He wouldnt rest though time had passed and all despaired of finding him alive. Losing his brother was tearing the man apart, ripping open those wounds til all that knew him feared him to be dying."
"But he found his friend, didnt he," Vin said in a dull voice, "But hes wasnt the same "
"Thats right Vin," Josiah said gently, "He found his lost brother, and brought him home. His brother had been hurt real bad and the healing will take a long time." He looked down and smiled, wiping away Vins tears with his fingertips, "But he will heal. He has to. Without him the man has no way of recovering from his own wounds, wont even try." He rubbed the trackers back, easing the tension there.
"Josiah?" Vin sniffed, curling his fingers into the fabric of the preachers vest.
"Hes gonna get better," he said, smiling himself as Josiah wrapped his arms around him.
"Glad to hear it son," Josiah said, relief in his voice.
"Just dont rush me," Vin added, his voice almost a whisper.
"Got all the time in the world," Josiah soothed, "Take as long as ya like."
The two men parted then sat in companionable silence, enjoying the warmth that existed between them
Mary Travis was cursing vehemently under her breath. The printing machine was once more acting awkward. She was certain that if it took on a human face it would become a man.
"Contrary! Mulish! Stubborn! If you dont start working soon Mister, Ill !"
Mary turned sharply; shed not heard the outer door open and was surprised to see Vin Tanner standing nervously in the doorway.
"Vin! How lovely to see you out and about. Please come in."
"I I thought you were talkin to someone." Vin glanced around the office and found no one.
Mary chuckled, "That!" She pointed to the printer, " Is acting like a stubborn man."
"Oh." Vin frowned. Confused, but unwilling to admit it. "Can I help?"
"No, thank you for the offer. Im used to it." She wiped the ink from her fingers, "Have you come here alone?" Everyone in town had got used to the young tracker being shadowed by either Chris or Josiah.
"Yes!" he said proudly, reminding Mary of her son Billy, whenever he did something he was proud of.
"Thats good. Would you like some coffee? I was just about to pour myself a cup."
Mary told him to take a seat while she went into the back room for the drinks. When she returned, Vin was flicking through one of the heavy tomes on her desk.
"So many words."
"Its a dictionary, Vin. You remember how important one of those is for me?"
"Yeah, spellin things right. Miz Travis ?"
"Mary. You call me Mary."
"Mary ." Vin blushed deeply.
Mary held back a smile, not wanting to embarrass the young man further. It was good to see him getting back to the Vin Tanner she knew and admired. She wanted to hug him, but something so personal would probably send him scurrying back to the safety of the church.
Waiting quietly, she watched as Vin carefully formed the question he wanted to ask.
"Mary, Id like to start my readin and writin lessons again."
"Thats wonderful Vin. I was hoping you would."
To hide even more blushes, Vin concentrated on his coffee, "Its good coffee, Miz Mary. Id best be gettin back. Josiahll have my hide ifn I stay out too long."
"When do you want to start your lessons?"
"I . When it suits you."
"I know," Mary replied enthusiastically, "Come for dinner on Sunday. Then well do some work in the afternoon."
"Bring Chris as well. He can entertain Billy while you and I work."
That sounded a much better idea to Vin. And he was sure Chris would agree to it, knowing how the gunslinger enjoyed Mary and Billys company.
"Very well. Thank you, Mary."
After hed left the office, Mary shook her head sadly. Would Vin ever find the inspiration for his beautiful poetry again? Though barely literate, he had a beautiful way with words. It would be a tragedy if such a talent was wasted.
Feeling far more confident, Vin strolled back down Main Street, spending a few minutes in Mrs. Potters general store, asking about her childrens welfare and leaving the shop with a bag full of candy.
Then he stopped outside the batwing doors of the saloon and considered going in. It was still early in the day and there were few men at the bar. He could hear Bucks raucous laughter and JDs loud voice. They would make him welcome, protect him. But Vin accepted that he wasnt quite ready for such interaction yet.
Maybe tomorrow. He thought as he carried on towards he church.
Josiah was expecting him back soon. Hed promised the preacher hed be no longer than an hour. The older man had warned Vin, jokingly, that if he were late getting back, hed tan his hide.
Chris Larabee was out of town for the day; hed been cajoled by the rest of the men into spending time at his cabin. The gunslinger had shrugged off the idea initially, until Josiah and Nathan had spoken to him, explaining that Vin would be quite safe and that the tracker needed some freedom.
Vin had been quite happy to see Larabee ride out for the day, but hed be even more pleased to see him ride back into town.
Still smiling to himself as he walked across the dusty street, Vin didnt notice the rider coming towards him.
"Get out of the way, you fool!" the rider, a Mexican, yelled as his horse came to an abrupt halt.
Vin glanced up towards the horseman, ready to apologise. Then he saw the coat the man was wearing. A battered tan coat. His coat!
The rider looked just as shocked. "You! How did you escape?"
Vin backed away from the Mexican. He remembered the face; the broken teeth, the ugly beady eyes. The man whod shot Chris! Stumbling onto the boardwalk, he searched for one of his friends. Anyone who could help him. But the street was practically deserted. He couldnt get to the church, because the Mexican blocked his way. His only escape was the alley. Dropping the bag of candy, he began to run as fast as his legs would carry him; presuming the Mexican was following him.
Floundering blindly along, Vin was soon on the outskirts of town and the buildings of Four Corners were no longer there to give him any cover.
He ran until his chest hurt and his legs gave way, then tumbled to the ground and curled into a tight ball, awaiting the attack he was certain would come.
Nothing happened. There was no sound of a horse galloping towards him; no angry voice calling out. Gathering together his fading courage, Vin sat up and gazed around. He was alone; there was no one chasing him. He started to laugh. A nervous giggle, borne out of relief and fear. Hed escaped the Mexicans clutches for now, but if he were to return to Four Corners .
Looking back towards the little town, Vin realised he could not go back, never see Chris and his friends again. Sinking back to the ground the tracker gave vent to his misery.
Coming out of the hotel, Ezra Standish walked briskly towards the saloon. Hed enjoyed a mouth watering lunch in the hotel restaurant and was now prepared for an afternoon session playing his favourite game; poker. Thered been three new arrivals on the morning stage. Salesmen from back east. They were usually the easiest of pickings to a man of Ezras ability.
As he entered the saloon, a Mexican rode by. Ezra frowned. There was something familiar about the man, something he couldnt quite put his finger on. What was it? Ezra shrugged, he wasnt going to waste good gambling time worrying about it.
Josiah Sanchez stood on the steps of the church, searching for the tracker. Vin had promised he wouldnt be long. Two hours had passed; the preacher was worried, "Where ya got to, Vin?" he grumbled.
The most logical thing to do was follow Vins footsteps. Hed said he was going to visit Mary Travis. Josiah made his way to the Clarion office.
"Josiah, whats wrong? You look worried." Mary had finally got the troublesome machine to work and was printing off the latest newsletter.
"Lookin fer Vin, Mary. He said he was comin here."
"He did. Stayed about twenty minutes. Said he had to get back to you," Mary smiled, "He said youd threatened him."
"That I did. But it seems my threats dont count fer nothin." Josiah tipped his hat at the blonde-haired woman, "Ill go check the saloon."
Marys smile slipped when she realised that Josiahs concern was more than perfunctory. She took off her ink stained apron and followed the preacher outside, "Were probably worrying over nothing."
"I hope so, Mary."
Buck and JD were just exiting the saloon as Josiah and Mary reached the doors. Buck didnt like the look on their faces. "Problem?"
"Is Vin in there?"
"No. Havent seen him since breakfast. Thought he was with you."
JD nodded in agreement with his friend, "We were just comin over to see how you were doin."
"Oh dear," Mary said softly. "Where else could Vin be? Do you think he went after Chris?"
"JD, go check the stables, see if Vins horse is still there."
The young sheriff hurried off, hoping theyd soon find Vin.
"Ill go check with Nathan," Josiah said as he went in the opposite direction.
"Maybe he called in one of the shops," Mary pondered aloud, "Ill try Gloria Potters."
Deciding they needed extra help with the search, Buck returned to the saloon and walked over to Ezras poker table.
The southerner was enjoying a lucrative afternoon. The salesmen were no competition for him. When he saw Buck hurrying towards him, he knew something was wrong. It was easy to guess what. "Mr. Tanner?"
"Missin. Need your help Ezra. Sorry for spoilin your game."
" Ahm sure these gentlemen will not mind if I curtail my involvement in this game of chance?" He gave an engaging smile to the three well-dressed men. They all sighed with relief; their funds were running extremely low.
Following Buck outside, Ezra asked. "In what capacity do you require mah assistance with?"
"Lets see if any of the others have found him yet." Buck didnt like to think it, but if Vin was missing, someone had to go and inform Chris. Not something any of them would look forward to.
Nathan and Josiah were the first to join them outside the saloon. Vin hadnt been to see the healer. JD returned from the stable. Vins horse was still there. Mary and Gloria Potter arrived in a hurry.
"Gloria saw Vin, after he visited me," Mary informed the men.
"Thats right," the widow Potter agreed. "He stayed and chatted to me for fifteen minutes. I gave him a bag of candy."
"Did he say where he was goin then, Mrs Potter?" Nathan asked urgently.
"Said somethin about the church."
"Thank you, Ma-am."
The five men, after thanking Mary and Gloria for their assistance, began walking the route Vin should have taken.
JD noticed one of the local stray dogs munching contentedly on something. "Whatcha got there?" he said calmly as he knelt next to the cur. The dog, presuming JD was going to take his prize from him, ran off, still holding some of the candy in its mouth. But the bag and some of its contents, remained.
"Look here. Could this be the candy Mrs. Potter gave Vin?"
"Why would he drop it?"
"Perhaps he perceived " Ezra stopped, suddenly remembering the Mexican. "Vins coat!"
"That abhorrent tan coat that Vin always wore. Ah saw it, today."
"Are you sure it was Vins?" Buck asked the gambler.
"A coat of that persuasion would hardly be forgotten."
"If Vin saw it."
"More importantly, saw the man wearing it," Josiah concluded.
"It could have been the same man who abducted Vin."
It wasnt a thought they wanted to consider. What if .
"Do you think he took Vin again?" JD voiced all of their fears.
"Ah do not think so. He was riding through town, alone. And did not seem in any hurry."
"Maybe still in town?"
"It is a possibility."
"Then you take Nathan and JD and look for him. Men Josiahll start searching town for Vin. He cant be far away." Buck looked at their faces hoping for some show of agreement, but none of them looked convinced.
+ + + + + + +
Vin found a well-worn trail and began to pick his way along it. The track travelled west. He didnt know where it would lead him, as long it took him away from anyone connected to him. His master. No! Not that. Chris had told him again and again that Vin was a free man. He had no master.
As the day wore on, the weather turned colder. Thered been a few flurries of snow on the high ground and the temperature everywhere was dropping.
Vin wasnt wearing the new jacket his friends had bought him. Hed not intended being outside for more than an hour. Glancing at the low winter sun, Vin reckoned hed been on the road for most of the afternoon. The others would be searching for him by now and Josiah would be extremely angry. What would Chris do when he returned from his cabin?
If only Vin could remember where Chris home was. It was another missing piece to the puzzle. Beginning to realise hed made a mistake in running away from town, Vin turned to look back down the trail. By now the sun was settling low on the horizon and the winter chill was clamping around him. He was cold, hungry, miserable and lost!
+ + + + + + +
"I sure as hell aint tellin Chris that Vins missin," Buck stated emphatically. He and Larabee might have a great friendship but it was nothing like the connection Chris had with Vin.
"Vin was under my care. I take full responsibility."
"Thats a magnamanous gesture, Josiah, but Ahm not sure our leader will find such noble announcement acceptable."
"We still got a couplehours for we have to start worryin bout Chris goin on a rampage," Nathan argued.
They were all snapping at each other, the tension between them, taut. The town had been searched thoroughly; everyone willing to help. But Vin had disappeared.
"Do ya think he left town?" JD asked.
"On foot! In this weather! Thats a dumb idea kid," Buck answered.
"Shame we couldnt find the Mexican fella."
Dya think its worth one of us ridin out after him?" JD proposed.
"No, we should concern ourselves with finding Vin," Josiah said thoughtfully, "Its droppin cold out there. Vin aint wearin his coat." Calmly, he issued orders to the search party. They were to search the town once more. Every house, privvy, stable . Anywhere a frightened young man might find safety. And as dusk and Chris Larabee drew nearer, they were no closer to finding their errant tracker.
Chris had enjoyed the quiet of his cabin and as he rode back to Four Corners, was considering taking Vin there for a couple days of peace. He was sure the tracker would appreciate the solitude of his wilderness home.
Chris was glad he was wearing the serape. It helped to keep the biting wind at bay. A couple of gut warmers, once he reached town would also help.
So sure of the path that led to Four Corners, Chris allowed the black gelding its head and was nearly unseated when the animal spooked violently. The gunslinger pulled his gun out and peered into the darkened rocks that framed the path. Finally, he made out a figure huddled against one of them.
Sliding out of the saddle, gun ready to fire, Chris walked quietly over to the figure, which was yet to move. It looked as if the man was trying to find protection against the weather. Chris couldnt see the mans horse and wondered if hed been thrown.
"You hurt?" he asked guardedly, still pointing the gun at the figure.
The man moved a fraction and turned to face him.
"Vin! What the ?"
"Chris!" Relief flooded out of the one word.
Re-holstering his gun, Chris hurried over to the young man. He tugged off the serape and pulled it over Vins thin shoulders, firing questions as he worked.
"What you doin out here? Wheres your horse? Where are the others? Wheres your damn coat?!"
Vin managed a faint smile. Chris was here, taking care of him. He then remembered why hed left town. "Cant go back."
"Why not? Whos there?"
"He he was there . Man who shot ya," Vin replied nervously, his fingers clutching Chriss jacket.
"Were goin back and were goin to find him," Chris said as he hauled Vin to his feet.
"Hell . Hell "
"Hell what; shoot me again?" Chris gently untangled his shirt from Vins clasp, "You cant keep runnin pard."
Vin frowned; didnt Chris understand? "Dont want ya hurt."
Overwhelmed by his friends compassion, Chris pulled Vin into a tight embrace, "Thank you, pard."
After a few moments Vin pulled away, smiling coyly, "Goin my way?"
"Sure am. But dont expect me to protect you from Josiah." Larabee mounted his horse and hauled Vin up behind him. "Where were you goin anyway?"
"Dont know. Just had to keep you safe." Vins hands snaked around Larabees waist and he rested his head against the gunmans back.
Five men stood in the church discussing their next move.
"Vins gotta be out on the trail somewhere," JD said for the umpteenth time and finally being listened to.
"Weve already agreed on that JD. But where?" Wilmington asked irritably. The whole day had turned into a nightmare. He couldnt believe theyd lost the tracker so easily.
"No good startin a search now. Wed never find him in this weather." Nathan peered through the window, glancing up at the thick clouds rolling in to cover the night sky and obscuring the moon.
"I shouldve stayed with him. What was I thinkin?" Josiah lamented.
"Mr. Sanchez, we are all, in hindsight, guilty of neglect. But none of this combined guilt will find us any closer to regaining our elusive Mr. Tanner."
They all agreed with Ezras eloquent assessment.
"Think Chrisll ride back tonight, in this weather?"
"Untamed equines would not keep the erstwhile Mr. Larabee from returning," Ezra surmised as he walked over to the outer door. "So it would be a pertinent move on our part to be prepared for a verbal, if not physical assault, when our leader learns of our dilatory actions."
Agreeing once more with the gambler, four sorry looking individuals followed him out of the church to make their way over to the jail.
Ezra stopped suddenly, bracing himself as the others stumbled into him.
"Whats wrong Ez?"
The animal was tethered outside the jailhouse. Knowing any further chance of recovering the situation was lost, the men continued towards their destination. As Ezra placed a hand on the door handle, he was moved aside by Josiah.
"Ill be the one to tell Chris," the preacher said solemnly.
"Brave man." Ezra moved to one side and allowed Josiah to pass.
This time the preacher brought the group to an ungainly halt.
Owlish blue eyes stared at him shamefaced, " Im sorry, Josiah."
"Thank God youre safe!" Sanchez moved further into the jail to allow the others to enter.
Each man was caught by the withering glance of Chris Larabee, who sat slouched behind the sheriffs desk, a cup of coffee in his hands.
"Found him on the trail," he explained before they asked, "Damn near froze to death."
Nathan was more concerned with Vins welfare than Chris condemnation. He hurried over to the nervous tracker. Vin stood close to the stove, feeling the warmth from it seep through his chilled body.
"Why ya run away Vin?" he asked as he checked the young man for injuries.
"You were!" Buck bellowed, "How the hell dya think we felt?!"
"Buck ," Chris quietly warned, "Vin says he saw the man that shot me."
"Was said stranger clothed in that poor deceased creature you wear as a coat?"
"Ysee him too, Ezra?"
"Ah did. A most disagreeable visage. Ugly is too kind a word to describe said miscreant."
"We searched for him Vin. When we couldnt find you. Thought mebbe hed " JDs exuberant conclusion was halted when Buck jabbed him in the ribs, "Ouch! Whats that for?"
"Vins here. Safe. Thats all that matters."
"I know that."
"Did you find him?" the blond asked.
"No Chris. Must have hightailed it outta town once hed seen Vin."
Larabee couldnt decide if that was good or bad news. Was the Mexican scared? Maybe heard that Larabee wasn't dead? Or had he gone to fetch Calderone? Ever since Vin had remembered his tormentors name, Chris had wanted to ride to Purgatorio and kill the man. Only sensible reasoning from Josiah and Nathan had quelled his destructive urge. Theyd pointed out that if anything should happen to him, Vin would never forgive himself.
"We double the watch. Keep an eye on any strangers. " He hoped the others understood his concerns without having to voice them in front of Vin. His companion needed a good, restful sleep. "Josiah, think you can keep our runaway close to you, tonight?"
"Like a second skin, brother Chris. Im only sorry I didnt watch over him before."
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