The Reverse Side of the Coin

by Chris

Disclaimers: Yes, they are mine .. in my wildest dreams but in the plain reality I don’t own the gorgeous buckskin man and the…. others .I sadly admit that and I’m not getting any money from this, only the pleasure of taking the Seven out to play with them. I hope not to offend Native American fans with my attempt to insert into the tale a bit of their truly fascinating world.

Warnings: strong words and violence. Not suitable for sensitive readers.

Comments: This story was written with the big help of my friend Laurie Anne., a very precious Lady. She is going to post a very different story about Vin’s father and so I’m not allowed to put her name, too, as author of this tale, but she is much more than "my beta reader" to me. Thanks to everyone who gave me encouragement. Thanks at last to Lynda the kindest lady I’ve ever met. In the end thanks to Vin's character for the inspiration.

Feedback: Welcome. No bullets as usual.

The Past
It was the late part of a sunny afternoon, and the young woman was working diligently in the little orchard, pulling her wide-brimmed hat further down to shield her eyes from the blinding sun. Glancing into the distance at the lonesome landscape, she saw two riders approaching. She turned abruptly, a strange feeling of warning rising in her chest, causing her to rush to the porch.

His son was as usual sitting there with a little knife in his quick, small hands, carving cautiously on a piece of wood. Her eyes softened at the sight of the slender boy. He turned to her with his easy smile, and once again she imagined she saw her husband before her, the man who left the same night she was going to give birth to their own child. How many years ago?

"Mama?" The soft, tiny voice brought her back to reality.

"Vin, someone is coming," she told him, "get inside." Entering the spare furnished room, she took the rifle hanging against the wall and headed resolutely to the front of the house.

"Can I come with you, Mama?" asked the boy as he stood next to his mother, his large, blue eyes staring at her warily.

"No, it's too dangerous. You lock yourself up in your room, and if anything happens, run to our neighbor's house for help...," she added, leaning on him and ruffling the tousled, light brown head. Watching the boy go through the front door, she didn't turn around until she was sure he was well inside.

"Why are you hiding my kid?" A low, sharp voice cracked through the air.

With a sudden chill in her veins, she looked up; standing in front of her by the frame of the door was the man she had been longing for. He hadn't changed much: the same broad shoulders, the same piercing, blue eyes, and the familiar dusty, hide coat.

"What are you doing here?" she whispered, stepping back into the cabin.

"I came 'cause of him," answered the man, nodding at the boy who stood there glaring at him. On the finely, chiseled face, the man could see wonder and suspicion, but not an inch of fear.

"Damn lil' thing, you are jist a Tanner! I swear it!" he boomed, grabbing his son and holding him in his strong arms. "A little thin and small for your age, but jist a Tanner none the less!"

"Leave me be!" cried the boy, and with a quick, unexpected movement, he freed himself from the man's grip, making his stand by his mother's side.

Meanwhile, a slender, Indian girl approached from the barn: tall, with dark hair and wonderful black eyes, shadowed by long lashes. She didn't utter a sound, but stopped near the steps of the porch, staying close enough to watch the coming event.

The man laughed at his wife's astonished face when she viewed the Indian maiden. "Wipe your chin, Woman! She is only my new wife, White Feather. I came here for the boy, so pack up his belongings. We're leaving at dawn."

Clenching her teeth, she stood against the man, holding her boy firmly in a deathly grip on his thin arm. "Don't you dare try to steal my son! He is mine! You abandoned us ten years ago. Do you remember that?" she cried out, her gaunt, beautiful face reddening in anger.

The man nodded, a mischievous grin on his tanned face. "I left, that's true. I needed to be free, and you asked me to settle down, to change my life to be with you, but I'm not a cowboy or a rancher. I need open spaces and freedom!"

"You're plumb crazy! I asked for our son's sake, he needed a house and an easier life than yours," answered the woman with fury, trying to cover the boy with her whole body.

"Hesh up, Woman! My son will be like me, a free man, and I came to take him with me, and th’ sooner th’ better!" shouted the man as he grabbed his wife by the throat, squeezing it tightly. She struggled against the stronger hands holding her neck, as a thick darkness called her.

"Nooo!" screamed the little boy, hitting at the man with his tiny fists, but he was easily silenced by a mean punch to his head, sending him down hard to the floor semi-conscious.

Tightening his grip around the neck of his first wife , she went limp into his arms. The man tossed the lifeless body on the floor of the small cabin, and turned to the prone body of the boy. He ripped off the shirt from the little, shivering shoulders.

"Dirty son of a bitch," he muttered in anger, "you need a good hard lesson." He loosened his belt and let it fall in all its length upon the bare back of the child. The boy whimpered at the first stroke, but did not cry out. In the end, the child lay unconscious.

"Clean him up, Squaw. We're leaving at dawn," ordered the man, and he left the room.

Falling to her knees next to the little body, the silent Indian girl being as careful as possible, lifted the boy. He was so light in her arms, so pale. She frowned and took him to a bedroom in the back of the cabin.

Having laid him on the bed, she started tending to his wounds, her large eyes full of sorrow and regret, lingering on the tiny frame. Gingerly washing the ashen features smudged with dirt, she stopped as a pair of vivid, blue eyes in the swollen face stared up at her.

"Mama?" the boy called out, weakly putting a hand to his head.

She knew the boy couldn't understand her, but with a sweet voice, she reassured him in her own tongue, while slowly wiping his cheeks with gentle hands. After that was done, she held a canteen up to his mouth. He gulped down the offered water greedily, then glanced up at her in confusion.

Speaking in a soothing tone, the girl turned the boy prone on the bed. When she began to clean his bloody back, Vin moaned pitifully and passed out. Lovingly, the girl bandaged the wounded child and tucked a blanket around the still, frail body when she finished her ministrations.

All that time the man never watched them, slumped on a chair in the kitchen. He eagerly drained a bottle of Rye, and then called hoarsely for his Indian bride. "Squaw! I need something to eat! Hurry up!"

Afraid to leave her small patient, but frightened of her husband's rage, she tenderly brushed back a brown, errand curl from the sweaty forehead of the boy and hurried to the kitchen. After an hour of preparation, she brought out a bowl of steaming hot stew to the table, placing it directly in front of the man.

"Get me another bottle, Squaw," growled the man.

The Indian maid nodded and headed for the door. She glanced quickly at the dead woman lying only inches away, her heart heavy with grief.

In a terse, blue sky the moon had risen and was shining bright. She felt herself comforted by the well known sounds of the forest, holding out her slender arms in front of her to call for the spirits of the Earth. She was aware that they gave her the power of healing. A light blow of wind through her hair was the answer. Sighing, she approached the horses and reached for the saddlebag, finding two more bottles of liquor left. She stopped to think for several minutes then decided to bring both bottles in.

Entering the room silently, she put them in front of the man and sat on the floor, near the bedroom Vin was laying in, not daring to go inside even if her heart was bleeding for the child. She listened intently till the sound of a light breathing coming from behind the door told her that exhaustion had gotten rid of the pain and the wounded boy was now asleep.

A faint light from the moon was filtering in through a window of the little cabin when the man dropped his head on the table, snoring heavily. The girl watched carefully, surveying the sleeping man. Suddenly she smiled.

Like a shadow, she eased herself into the next room, wrapping a blanket around the still unconscious boy. She pulled the pitiful shivering body into her arms and left the cabin.

The Present

The day was hot near the little creek; Chris Larabee slumped lazily on the grass as Vin Tanner, stripped to the waist, bathed himself in the chill, limp waters. Tanner had his lean back to the gunman, and Chris realized that in the few short weeks that the seven men had decided to ride together, he had never seen the tracker without his hide coat. Green eyes widened in shock at the sight of the long healed scars on the tanned skin of the younger man.

Suddenly aware of the scrutinizing gaze upon him, Vin blushed hard and grabbed frantically for his shirt that was laying on a nearby rock. With one fluid, cat-like motion, he put it on, quickly ending the viewing.

Chris kept his gaze, even though he did not like the look of the tracker across from him. Vin sat down on the grass, pulling on his boots. Damn, the temptation of the creek had momentarily caused him to forget he had company.

The younger man licked his lips. "Chris, I reckon it's time ta go," he rasped.

Seeing the familiar stubbornness creep into the intense, blue eyes, Larabee knew his friend would not share the cause of the old injuries . He couldn't blame forthcoming was he about his own past? Sometimes it was better to let the past remain the past, but he couldn't shake the feeling that whoever had done this cruel beating to Vin could come back and do it again.

They rode together in a deep, unsettling silence towards the town, traveling fast. Within an hour they were at the jail. Vin dismounted, and with a slight nod, headed for his wagon without a word.

Chris sighed, eyeing his friend sadly as he disappeared into he alley. Those scars were old, and taking into account Vin's age, they had to have been done to him when he was very young. The gunslinger stood at the jail's door for a while, then finally entered inside the dark building.

"Hey Chris," JD Dunne called from the desk, "Judge Travis will be coming in on the stage in a few hours. We've got a new job."

The blonde nodded. "What time is the stage coming exactly?"

"At three, I think."

"The others?"

"Buck and Ezra are at the hotel, Nathan is at his clinic, and Josiah is fixing his church as usual."

"And Vin is at his wagon," Chris informed the youngest member of the seven peacekeepers. "Why don't you round them all up, and I'll wait here."

"K'ay Chris," called the young man as he hurried out the door.

Chris lowered himself onto a chair and lit his cheroot, his green eyes wandering across the room. His gaze stopped on the wanted posters hung on the wooden wall: the faces on them drawn above the big numbers of the bounties wanted, written in clear, black letters. It all reminded him of another poster, well hidden in his room at the boarding house.

He saw in his mind the image of his young friend, his wide, blue eyes staring back at him with confidence, that lopsided grin big under the slouch hat. Larabee sighed. "Who are you really, Vin Tanner?" he said quietly, "and why in hell do I trust you beyond any doubt?"

Being a good ten years younger than himself, Chris knew that Vin had suffered some of the most dreadful hardships a man could take, making the tracker reluctant to talk about his past. The harsher episodes were locked deep into the sensitive soul, the inner burden causing the bottomless, blue glare older beyond his years. A hard life had shaped Vin Tanner into the complex and wary man he was today. With the strong link they shared, Chris hoped that someday they would both overcome the pain in their pasts. If he was sure of one thing; it was that Vin was the only person to break through his steel wall of grief and bitterness that completely surrounded his heart and soul after his family's death. He desperately wished to do the same for his young friend, easing the strangling grip of unresolved pain. It was never totally gone, but knowing that another was there for you no matter what, helped keep the dark demons at bay.

A light tap at the jailhouse door brought Chris out of his thoughts. "The stage is here early!" the excited voice of JD shouted from outside. The gunfighter joined the others in the street to greet the Judge. In front of the hotel, the stage came to a stop, Chris, Nathan, and Josiah welcoming Orrin Travis back to Four Corners.

Vin was leaning against a wooden post on the walkway, a sad look crossing his handsome face. Buck Wilmington watched his new friend, sensing something was wrong, but unsure how to ask Vin about it. He could see a deep hurt in the expressive eyes of the sharpshooter. The ladies' man couldn't help but not like Tanner...the wry sense of humor, the strength and the sharp mind. And what the young man did for Chris; Buck would be forever grateful. Walking up, Buck reached out and gently grabbed Vin by the shoulder, feeling the younger man stiffening in surprise.

"Hey Pard, what's goin' on? Mighty long face ya have there."

"None of yer business, Buck," growled Vin in a low tone. The tracker jerked himself out from under the ladies' man's grip and hurried over to the other side of the walkway.

As the passengers left the stage one by one , Buck noticed Vin's surly scowl changing to agitation, the full mouth trembling as the tracker paid special attention to one passenger in particular.

He was an older man, dressed in a worn out Indian coat, and moved slowly. His shoulder length hair was gray, and his face, lined with age, had to have been a handsome one in his youth.

Buck glanced back at Vin, the tracker having the same look as a wild animal, trapped and ready to run.

"Buck, Vin...," called out Chris, "c'mon, we need to talk with the Judge." Wilmington looked at Vin with concern, and then turned to enter the saloon. Tanner had made it very clear he wasn't going to talk about what was troubling him.

Vin was stunned and somewhat frightened at the sight of the man. He shook his head to get control of the painful memories, the feeling of being trapped and helpless in this never ending nightmare overwhelming him. Once the ghosts of the past decided to rise again, there was no place to be found to avoid them.

The man saw the figure and limped towards the walkway. "I'd have recognized you anywhere, Son," he whispered, the pale, cerulean eyes so similar to Vin’s were lingering on the slim young man.

"What are ya doin' here?" muttered the tracker.

"Looking for your pardon, son. I'm dying.... I paid for my fault in prison, and I need to mend my wrongs and go in peace," answered the old man in a sad voice.

"Ya deserve ta die alone, like the mangy dog ya are! Ya murdered a helpless woman, and I can't hold my hand against ya ‘cause yer my Pa. Better thank the Almighty fer that!" Vin growled, turning abruptly and walking away.

"Vin!" the old man cried out after his son, falling to the ground with a deep sigh. Nathan had watched the exchange between the two men, not having entered the saloon with the others. He quickly approached the man, who was unconscious. Buck, Chris, and JD came out to the street, wanting to know what was going on. Doing a check on the man, Nathan found the skin to be clammy, and the frail body shivering violently with the hard fought breaths.

"Who is he?" JD asked. "He seemed to know Vin."

Taking in the familiar features of the older man, Chris' eyes grew hard. "It's his father," he answered in a deadly voice that made the others turn to him in surprise.

"Hell, I figured he was dead since Vin's been on his own since he was little," Buck said with a shrug of his shoulders.

"I knew he was alive," Chris murmured. Vin had revealed that detail one night when the two men had had a little too much to drink. The gunfighter also picked up on the cold attitude the tracker had towards the man. It was obvious Tanner was not pleased he had a least this one. "Let's get him to the clinic."

Scanning the empty walkway, he noted the absence of his friend. "Where's Vin?" he asked the others. Just then a galloping Peso and rider flew by the jailhouse at full speed, disappearing out of the town's limits, towards open land. "Dammit Vin!" hollered Chris. He turned, intent to follow after his best friend, but the huge hand of Josiah's on his arm stopped him.

"Let him go to the wilderness, the only mother he has now. " murmured the preacher. "The spirit of his lost mother will look out after him and he'll be safe. Vin will return to us as soon as his soul is able to heal."

The twilight tinged the distant mountains in a crimson veil as Vin looked around himself in relief. No walls, and especially no people, only the light murmur of the wind sweeping across the grass and the rustling of a little stream running deep between the rocks.

He dismounted, not minding to tie his black gelding, but instead laid on the grass, his eyes on the darkening sky, savoring the peaceful moment, in the soft embrace of nature. A full moon was rising, and he looked at it as a sweet, lost voice whispered in the dialect of the Kiowa's.

"White Wolf, you are my brave little son. I'll love you forever, don't forget me." These were the last words he ever heard from the Indian woman who had rescued him, the day he decided to leave the camp, so long ago. He could still see her standing before him in the full light. She raised her slender hands; palm facing outwards, and then lowered them slightly, moving them gently towards him in the Indian sign of blessing. After that loving gesture, she turned slowly, entering her teepee, never to lay eyes on her adoptive son again.

Vin was lost in his past, not aware of the approach of three men, their weapons drawn and pointed at him. Before he could reach for his mare's leg, he heard the crack of a carbine rifle, and felt the searing pain through his left side, causing him to collapse to the ground.

The first man ordered the others to stand down. "Well, Jake, you and Morgan make camp here, I’ll take care of this tramp." He lowered his gaze on the fallen, young man, his face fixed in an evil grin. Dragging the unresisting body to two close trees, he tied Vin to them spread eagle, taking great joy in tying the hands and feet as tightly as he could, the ropes leaving red welts on the skin. After a while, the outlaw leaned over his prisoner, carefully observing the young man's reclined face in the faint light of the little campfire.

"See, Morgan, he resembles ol' James Tanner a lot. It's gotta be his son, a bastard half-breed jist like him. If our informer does his job, this breed's friends will come and rescue him, leaving the town unprotected. The bank money will be easy pickings."

"Are you really sure of that?" asked Jake.

"Sure as rain. We'll have the bank money and the price too." Seeing the confusion on his companion's face, the man laughed, pointing to the bound tracker. "He's got a bounty on him."

"That kid? He's got a bounty on his head?"

"And a valuable one too, ol' Pard," the man answered with another laugh before walking back to the fire.

Vin groaned and forced his eyes to open, frowning when he realized his perilous situation. Just a short distance away sat three men he had never seen before...probably after the bounty, but he had to play it safe, in case they were after something else. He didn't have to wait long for his answers as the obvious leader of the group sauntered towards him.

"Hello, Breed! How are you doing?" snorted the man.

"I'm no breed, ya crazy bastard," Vin snarled in response.

"Calm down, Tanner. There's no use," taunted the man as he pulled his Bowie knife out, flashing it in front of his captive's face. He pulled on Vin's shirt, ripping off the fabric and throwing the remains on the ground.

"What the hell do ya think yer doin'? What the hell do ya want?" the tracker demanded in a loud voice. His response came in a hard backhand from the huge man. Blood flowed from the cut on Vin's lip as the other outlaws urinated on him to add to the insult.

"He's real purty, ain't he?" the large man jeered, cupping the strong chin of his prey. "Let's take a better look," he muttered, slicing the suspenders that held the tan slacks on the slender form. He then unbuttoned Vin's pants, lowering them and the long johns to his ankles.

Vin shivered as the cold air stung his naked skin. Clenching his teeth, he blushed slightly under the humiliation of being stripped of his clothing. "What the devil? Who are ya? Why are ya doin' this?" he gasped, spitting a wad of blood out of his mouth.

"You wanna know?" the man growled. "All right...I'll tell you this much...we're going to beat the living tar outta you!" Vin watched warily as the other two men approached, bracing himself for the forthcoming ordeal.

Night had fallen upon the town, Nathan and Chris sitting in the room watching the older man lying on the narrow bed. His face was white and the breathing heavy.

"Nathan?" Chris urged the healer.

"I ain't no doctor, and I'm not sure 'bout this," Nathan answered. "He seems real sick, but something ain't right 'bout it."

The black clad gunfighter studied the old man's features. They were so familiar to him; the same strong jaw, the wavy hair, the same well shaped nose.... "Look at him, he looks just Vin," he whispered.

"That's true," a deeper voice said from behind the men, "but what about his soul?" Chris turned and saw Josiah standing at the door. Entering the room, the preacher sat near the bed and glanced at the newcomer. He smiled sadly and continued : " Father and son are like a coin , the same shape, the same colour ,but every coin has got two sides : the obverse and the reverse. "

A deep silence filled the room as the man in the bed opened his eyes, looking around as if searching for someone. He finally focused on the three men standing near, and with a shiver, he gave the place one more go over before his pale lips uttered, "Vin?"

"Vin's not here, I'm sorry," Josiah said quietly, lowering himself closer to the man.

"Who are you?" Vin's father asked of the men.

"We're Vin's friends," Chris answered.

"Where is he?"

"He went out of town," Chris replied, the concern evident in his low tone.

"It's all my fault," moaned the older man, covering his weary face with trembling hands. "I came to warn him that a bunch of men followed me here, seeking revenge. If they find him, he's a dead man."

Suddenly the door burst open, Buck storming inside the clinic. "Chris! Take a look at this!" he hollered, giving the seven's leader a sheet of paper. Larabee read the few lines scratched on it and swore loudly.

"I was at the jail and a miner gave me the message. Wouldn't tell me his name and he high tailed it outta there pretty fast," Buck explained, holding in his hands a torn, battered, blue shirt that was stained with fresh blood. "Vin's hurt, Chris...."

"Please...find him. He's my only son," the old man cried out weakly, sinking into his pillow, breathless.

The man in black crushed the piece of paper in his hand before tearing it into tiny shreds. Josiah looked at his face and could see the loss and despair, despite the grim lines creasing around his mouth. The preacher knew the same emotions were mirrored on the rest of them. He averted his eyes and made a silent prayer.

'My Lord, keep your eyes on our lost brother, and let us find the way to save him. He doesn't deserve to die because of his father's sins. He's suffered too much in his short life.'

"Where's that damn miner, Buck?" Chris asked.

"Maybe in the saloon."

"Let's find him. Nathan, you stay here. We'll be back with Vin, and I think you ‘d better get prepared to do some work on him," ordered Chris, heading for the door, with Josiah and Buck following close behind.

The man they were looking for was easy to find in the run down saloon. Cornering the miner, Chris drew out his revolver and pointed it at him. "Well Mister," the gunfighter said in a low growl, "did you deliver that bloody message to my friend here?" Frightened by the angry look, the miner stared at the man in black, unable to make a sound. Chris aimed his gun between the man's eyes. "Tell me all you know," he demanded. "If you don't, consider yourself dead."

"I-I was on my way home...there were three of them. They stopped me, and they had a prisoner, tied to a tree...."

"What did this prisoner look like?" Josiah asked the trembling man.

"He...he was young, shoulder-length brown hair...kinda wavy...," answered the miner nervously.

"Was he hurt?" Buck inserted.

"Was awful bruised and bloody from what I could see," the man offered weakly. He found the blonde man's face thrusting into his, the green eyes dripping venom.

"Where?" Chris asked in a dangerous voice.

"Not far from the creek going to Eagle Bend. North...more northwest," uttered the man, terrified by the Larabee glare.

"How long ago did these men stop you?" Chris continued in his interrogation.

"Reckon 'bout three hours ago. Told me to give one of the sheriff's here the message and the piece of the fabric...or else." The miner breathed an inner sigh of relief when he saw the gunman lower his gun.

"Buck, get the horses ready! Josiah, go to the jail and bring the rifles, along with some extra bullets. I'm going to the hotel to fetch JD and Ezra. We're leaving in an hour," Chris ordered.

Chanu awoke in the middle of the night, a rustling noise coming from outside the teepee. The young warrior sat up on the cot and stared at the entrance, a loud howl making him shiver, allowing a strange chill to settle in his chest.

Fully alert, he raised and went out, the rest of his village still asleep. In the rays of the moonlight he searched into the darkness, hoping to find what was causing the ruckus. Then he saw a wolf, the beast not fleeing from the presence of man. Compelled to go forward, Chanu turned to the strange animal, and slowly the wolf approached him.

It was a she-wolf, well shaped and glowing with an unnatural, glittering fur. Mesmerized by her dark eyes, the Indian frowned when the wolf growled in a strange, deep sound. Chanu listened to it, seeking a meaning to the beast's odd behavior. In the distance at the same end of the village, six other wolves were waiting. The she-wolf howled again before joining the others, and they all disappeared into the forest.

Chanu glanced up at the full moon and nodded. Heading for his horse, he mounted and spurred the animal towards the prairie.

The fire had died down, the three outlaws in an alcohol induced slumber. Even the one chosen to take first watch had fallen fast asleep. Vin moved slightly, trying to lean his body against one of the tree trunks. His fevered mind wandered over through the events of the past day. He saw his father in front of him, followed by the faces of his six friends. A sense of fear filled his weary body, not because of the men holding him, or from the cruel treatment he had received, even the wound in his side seemed insignificant. It was the presence of that man...his father. Pushing the pain to the corners of his mind, Vin tried once more to solve the mystery of his father's arrival into town. He didn't know why, but he couldn't believe the excuse of forgiveness.

A chilly wind swept over his still exposed body, the cold air of the night settling in his bones. Various aches and pains joined with the throbbing in his back, causing his mind to loose focus. They had tortured him with knives and fire, then took a whip to him, all the while drinking and taunting their helpless captive. Long, deep wounds marred his backside, added to the old scars his father gave him, and the pain was intolerable.

Pressing his aching body against the trunk, Vin worked his hand upwards to try and loosen his bonds, but the knots were too high to reach. With no strength left to keep himself up, he managed to only rub the skin of his wrists raw, making them bleed profusely. With a sigh that turned into a muffled moan, Vin Tanner closed his eyes again, too tired and sick to hold on.

With a full moon illuminating the camp, a shadow made his way among the sleeping men. Vin was awakened by a feather's touch on his shoulder as a knife quickly sliced through his bonds, sending his body falling to the ground in a heap because his legs were unable to support him. His rescuer gently pulled him up into his arms.

"Chanu?" Vin whispered, allowing himself to drift slowly, the pain washing over his abused body. The moving around was too much to handle, and he cried out weakly before collapsing into oblivion.

"Mr. Wilmington? Are you sure that our fearless leader is taking us in the right direction?" asked Ezra.

"I'd trust him as if he were Vin himself," Buck answered with certainty. "Ya know how close they no one on earth. Josiah called 'em twin souls once. Maybe I don't understand what it means, but I know I can feel it."

JD nodded in agreement, then halted abruptly, throwing one hand up in the air to stop the others. "Take a look at this, guys," he said, pointing in the distance where a horse with two riders was approaching. Within minutes, they could see Chanu holding Vin, wrapped snugly in a blanket, on the saddle in front of the Indian warrior.

Chris reined in his horse and quickly dismounted, the other men following suit. Chanu stopped his steed in front of the blonde, their eyes meeting briefly in greeting.

"Get him," Chanu murmured.

Taking great care, Chris pulled the limp body of the tracker from the saddle into his arms, relieved that his friend was still breathing. Without regard to the astonished faces of the others, he seized the young man in a firm hug.

Josiah took charge, delivering fast orders. "Buck, I need fresh water, JD you fetch some wood and get a fire going, and Ezra, bring your new's warmer." He then slowly took the senseless sharpshooter from Chris' arms, and laid him down on Ezra's blanket, kneeling by his young friend's side.

Chris stared at his best friend. Vin was laying still...too still, his chiseled face wan and shadowed by the always unruly brown locks. The only sign of life was the slight rising and falling of the abused chest. "Josiah, how bad?" he asked.

"Bad enough, I'm afraid," Josiah stated, sparing a look at the gunslinger.

"He'll be all right?"

"I wish I knew, Chris, but right now he's feverish," the preacher replied, stroking the sweaty forehead of the unconscious tracker. "They did terrible things to our young brother...."

"He is alive and the Spirits will help him, as they did in the past," Chanu uttered, sitting in front of the fire beside Vin's prone form.

"What do you mean?" asked Chris.

"I was a boy when White Feather came to us for help. It was a stormy night, and my father, then the shaman, was called out of the tent. That night I saw Tanner for the first time. He was wounded and very ill, but he never pleaded as my father tended to him. I also saw his eyes that night, blue as the distant sky and fearless. My father told me that the Spirit of the wolf was protecting him...and this night a she-wolf came to me and guided me to him." The young warrior stopped and poked at the burning pieces of wood.

"White Feather was from the wolf's clan, and she brought him to our camp because she was ashamed and sorrowful. A white man had stolen her virtue, so the ancients from the tribe gathered and asked the Spirits for an answer; and one came...the white boy had a pure heart and must be saved to become one of us."

"Damn, I don't understand any of this," muttered Chris. "How exactly did you find Vin?"

"I was in my village, I awoke and I saw her...White Feather. She was in the shape of the she-wolf. Even though she only glanced at me and disappeared, her spirit guided me to him. But now he needs more, he needs your trust and your strength to survive. According to the will of the Great Spirit, I must leave."

The warrior raised, and brought two crossed fists against his chest in the sign that was used among the people for affection. As silently as he came, Chanu mounted his horse and galloped away into the night.

With a deep sigh, Chris settled in next to the unmoving body of his best friend, taking a damp rag to gently wipe at the bruised face. The blue eyes of the injured man opened slightly, staring up at the gunslinger.

"We home?" Vin asked in a weak voice, seeming confused.

"We'll be there soon, Vin. It's over," soothed Chris. "But you have to promise me that you'll stop running out on us."

Vin managed a small nod. " Reckon I can." He swallowed dryly. "The others?"

"They're here, and they're all right. Don't be worrying about it, just close your eyes and rest, Vin."

"Overheard those men...they want ta kill all of us, Chris." A soft panting came from the tracker's swollen lips, and taking a deep breath, he paused, glancing at his friend with pain filled eyes. "It's all because of him."

"What are you talking about?" Chris asked, his face crossed in consternation.

"My father...he planned all this...," Vin whispered, a long sigh echoing out of him.

"Your father? What do you mean, Pard?"

The tracker blinked twice and shook his weary head. "It's a trick, Chris, a damn trick...m'sure." Attempting to speak had drained all his strength, but Vin fought off the darkness that was threatening to take over his senses.

"C'mon, Vin," Chris objected, "I saw the man, he's ill, barely breathing. Why would he want us all dead, especially his own son? He begged us to save you, said that the men were after him."

Shifting uneasily, Vin's pale face contorted in pain, a deep moan escaping his lips. He held his ragged breath in check and battled to stay conscious. "Now ya listen ta me...a rattler is less dangerous than...that man!" Black spots danced before his eyes, and he blinked hard, trying to see his friend's face. "He killed my front of me. Then he whipped me nearly ta death...and I was only a kid. Only a helpless kid tryin' ta save his mother...."

Vin's voice drifted off, followed by a single tear rolling down his swollen face. Chris lightly squeezed the bare shoulder of his best friend, and dropped his head, feeling Vin's pain like a blade into his own heart. He looked at Vin again and wished he hadn't. The anguished expression on the young man's face was unbearable to look at.

Bringing his face closer to eye level, he promised, "I'm here, Vin, and I'll be as close as you need me to be...always."

A faint smile traveled on Vin's pale features. "I knew that," he acknowledged, looking at Chris with pain shaded eyes. Grateful and comforted by the gunman's words, the young sharpshooter sighted and let the darkness envelope him.

Ezra was standing on the edge of a big rock, surveying the trail below. It was about sunrise when he saw the riders approaching on the ridge. "Chris!" he shouted. "They're coming!"

The blonde threw the blanket off of him, and rising with a quick movement, he checked on his gun belt. "Buck," he called out to his old friend, "take care of Vin. We're going out to meet these bastards." He swiftly mounted his horse and uttered the cry, "Let's ride!" The four regulators rode off to face the outlaws who tortured their friend.

They were upon the men in a matter of minutes, and at the end, two men lay dead in the dusty trail, the third spurring his horse faster to escape. Chris was hard at his heels, the image of Vin's bloody body fueling him on. The outlaw turned in his saddle and took a shot at his pursuer, a sudden pain exploding on the left side of the gunslinger's head. Chris felt himself fall from his horse.

"Chris!" shouted Josiah, grabbing his friend before he could hit the ground.
The preacher pulled up his horse to Chris' and pulled the blonde over his lap with ease. "I've got you, Brother," he assured the unconscious man, holding him firm.

Nathan was resting in the little hall of the clinic near the room of his patient, unaware that the man in the cot had risen slowly on his feet, grinning evilly at him. With soundless steps, the older man reached the saddlebag on the chair and rummaged through it, taking out a small vial. He had the poison made by the juice of the hemlock fruit from an Indian tracker.

A little drop of it had caused his sudden illness, several more drops on the tip of an arrow could paralyze a prey, and half of the content of the vial could easily kill a man.

"It worked as usual," Vin's father said to himself. Quietly making his way back to his bed, he concealed it under his pillow, easing himself under the covers. The vial would come in handy again...very soon. Just as the man had settled in the bed, the door abruptly opened, and the rest of the seven rushed into the hall, carrying their two wounded friends.

"Nathan!" Buck cried out urgently. The healer slid from his chair and gave a quick look at the two injured men. Chris was leaning on the scoundrel, bleeding from the left side of his head, but in fairly good shape. Vin, on the other hand, was wrapped in a blood stained blanket and unmoving, his head resting on Josiah's broad chest.

"Take Chris in this room and wash the blood off of him. I'll see ta him later," Nathan ordered to Buck. Then he called for Josiah. "Josiah, help me get Vin to the table, and then get some water boiling." Pausing briefly, he turned to JD and Ezra. "You two had better go wait outside, and give me some space to work."

"We need to know how Vin is, Nathan. Don't push us away," JD pleaded, looking at the limp, half-naked sharpshooter on the narrow operating table.

"Mr. Jackson is right, my young friend. We must depart for now, for our shy tracker will be unhappy to have an audience viewing his exposed condition," Ezra stated before heading for the door. The young sheriff approached the table, and glancing sadly at the unconscious regulator, whispered, "See you later, Vin." He then reluctantly followed the gambler out the door.

Nathan carefully peeled off the blanket, shocked at the damage. "Good lord," he exclaimed, staring at the abused body of the tracker. At first glance he could see a wound high on the left side that was covered in dried blood. Finding an exit wound, the healer sighed in relief. 'It went all the way through',he thought to himself.

Vin stirred a little and mumbled complaints under his breath when Nathan washed him with a damp cloth, trying to cover himself with trembling hands. He cried out when the healer probed at his left side, but there was no need to hold him down, he was beyond exhaustion.

The healer cleaned the bruises coloring the lean chest and applied salve on the burns. Josiah approached with a bowl of steaming water, and Nathan added some herbs to it before soaking the rag. Wiping the cloth along the wound, it reopened, a mixture of yellow puss and blood seeping out in a little stream. Vin moaned loudly, tossing his head, too weak to move further. His pain intensified when carbolic was used to cleanse the wound, the liquid burning his flesh.

Throughout the ordeal, Vin never opened his eyes, and with the help of Josiah, was lifted off the table slightly to get a bandage wrapped around the gunshot wound. Then Nathan gently rolled the tracker on his stomach, and frowned at the sight of the lashes. None of them were bleeding badly, but Vin's back was a mess of cuts, bruises and scrapes.

The former slave washed the lacerations and stitched the deepest ones. After he was done, he poured a strong tea mixed with a good amount of laudanum into the half-conscious man's slack mouth. With the assistance of Josiah, the two men carried Vin to a bed and placed him in it.

"Nathan?" Josiah asked, glancing at the now silent tracker. During the ministrations, Vin had lain so still, too sick and feverish to do more than moan softly as pain coursed through his weakened body.

"He's in a lot of pain, and has got a fever, but he'll heal, physically. He's young and strong," Nathan answered, gently wiping the perspiration from Vin's fine features.

"And Chris will help him heal inside," the preacher smiled. "We all will do our best." He stopped and placed a hand on Nathan's shoulder. "I'll stay here with him for a while, you go check on Chris." Nathan nodded and collecting some supplies, went to help his other patient.

In the meantime, James Tanner was laying still in his bed, listening carefully to all that was happening in the next room, swearing softly. "He's still alive? Something must've went wrong."

His son was the only living witness to the murder of his wife, and he feared the truth would some day come out. After the murder, he had lived on the border with a bunch of renegades, and as the years passed, he presumed his son was dead.

That was till about six weeks ago, when he read a newspaper article up in Eagle Bend about seven peacekeepers in Four Corners. From that moment on, he formulated a plan to kill the boy and the others too. The kidnapping and torture of Vin would draw the others to his rescue, where an ambush would be waiting to finish them all off. With the only lawmen gone, the bank would be easy to rob, a small consolation prize.

Hearing the voices stop, he waited until he was sure all the other peacekeepers had left the clinic. Larabee wouldn't be a problem, and the dark skinned healer would be tending to him. That left the big preacher. A smile formed. He knew how to handle that.

Josiah stiffened and raised from his seat when he heard the anguished moan. He quickly headed for the bed and eyed the man in it.

"Is my son alive?" James asked quietly.

"He's barely alive, but thank God he is," the preacher answered, idly wondering about the strange feeling that held him. There was something wrong about this man, but it made no sense why he should think this way. He turned to him, studying the face through narrowed, suspicious eyes.

"I need some water," the man pleaded hoarsely.

The kind hearted preacher nodded. "I'll bring you some." He searched for the canteen, finding it empty. "I'll be back soon," he muttered, walking out the door.

James waited till he heard Josiah leave the building and rushed from his bed, approaching the cot where Vin was recuperating. The young man was curled on one side sound asleep, his hair falling across his face as he snored softly through his slightly parted lips from being so heavily drugged.

"Sorry Son, got no choice," he said without much emotion, grabbing the chin of the unmoving tracker. No one would be suspicious if the young man suddenly took a turn for the worse, and in Vin's weakened condition, he wouldn’t survive long. The vial hovered over the open mouth, James Tanner ready to pour the lethal dose, when a strong hand stopped him, throwing him on the floor. Josiah stood over the man, his eyes glittering with pure anger.

"I could kill you right now," growled the huge regulator, "but you must pay for all your sins."

Suddenly the door burst open, Chris storming into the room with his gun aimed straight at Vin's father. He had overheard the commotion, and Josiah's stern threat. That could only mean Vin was in trouble...and he knew who would be causing it. Seeing the broken vial on the floor enraged the gunfighter even more. "Josiah, step back, he's mine!" he hollered.

James' eyes widened in fear at the sight of the blonde, and he backpedaled on the floor as Chris approached, the gun ready to fire. "It ain't what it looks like," he tried to reason. "I was only checking on him.... Why would I harm my own boy?"

"Try the fact he's the only witness to the murder of his mother," Chris fired back, applying pressure on the trigger. "It would explain why you hired those men to kidnap Vin and ambush us. I'm damn sure that wasn't medicine in that vial either, you cold hearted bastard!"

"Drop your gun, Chris," ordered a quiet, strong voice. Orrin Travis entered the room, hearing the charges made by Chris. "The law will punish that murderer."

Chris lowered his gun, but not his withering glare. The man before him was less than dirt in his eyes, trying to murder his own flesh and blood. After watching Josiah drag the older man out of the clinic, he turned his gaze to his best friend, squeezing Vin's forearm lightly.

"He's not going to hurt you anymore, Vin," he swore in a half whisper.

One Week Later

Mary was in front of the clinic with a basket in her hands when Chris approached her.

"How's he doing?" Chris asked with a slight smile.

"He's burning up," Mary answered with a coy grin, "but not from fever. He's refusing to cooperate, and Nathan is going out of his mind."

Chris rolled his eyes upward. "What happened this time?"

"I was going to bathe him, and he didn't agree, so he pulled the blankets over himself."

"I'm going upstairs then," Chris chuckled. Silently opening the door, he found an enraged Vin propped up with some pillows, tugging hard at the quilt over him.

"I'm gettin' mighty sick'n tired of y'all takin' my clothes every time I'm hurt!" Vin growled at Nathan.

"It's the only way to keep your mule-headed hide in bed!" shouted back the healer.

The young man shot an angry look at the black man and continued his tirade. "And it ain't right that Mary's allowed ta stay here and see me buck naked! I ain't no baby!"

Ambling into the room, Chris had a smirk on his face as he looked at the disgruntled features of his two friends. "Nathan, why don't you go out for a while and get some dinner. I'll take care of the naked baby. "

"That's good Chris!" Nathan said, throwing his hands up in the air. "I've had enough of him!"

Chris smiled at the healer. "What's he"

"Everything! He's driving me crazy! First time I take a bit of a rest, I catch him trying to sneak out, so I had to take his clothes and hide them. Mary came this morning and offered to help me out by giving Vin a sponge bath, and he out right refused to let her."

The gunslinger's brows furrowed. "Vin? Is that true?"

"Darn it all, Chris," Vin groused, his face blushing furiously, "she's ain't fair .. ‘sides I want my pants back!"

Chris nodded thoughtfully. "Well, I'll think on it, but for now, I want you to stay put...or I'm going to put these on you." And with a mischievous grin, he raised a pair of manacles that Nathan kept for unruly patients in front of Vin.

"Aw hell!" the young man groaned with dismay, drawing the covers up over his head as Chris sat on the chair beside his bed.

A serious look crossed Chris' face as he glanced at Vin. "I've got some news about your father," he began slowly. "He's in Yuma prison, and they're going to hang him tomorrow."

Vin stiffened and turned to his friend, his pale, haggard face suddenly sad. "My father died long ago in my Ma's memory," he said in a low voice. "I don't know this man, and I don't care 'bout his death."

"Tell me about White Feather," Chris asked.

Tense features softened as Vin smiled up at the ceiling. "I’se scared and hurt...she gave me help and shelter," he answered in his soft, slow drawl. "And more than that...she gave me the gift of a new family. In the village I'se safe and had a new name."

"What is it? Your Indian name, I mean."

"It's White Wolf. She told me that with this name I'll have the protection of the wolf, her clan's totem. White Feather also said somethin' else 'bout me. She was a healer, a woman who had the sight," Vin murmured, closing his eyes as he became lost in his memories.

"What did she say?"

"She told me of a legend about a lone, white wolf lookin' fer his pack. She was in this dusty town I've found at last...mine."
"That's true Vin. That's really true," Chris agreed and his hand closed tightly on the tracker's forearm.


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