by The Buffalo Gals (Sue Diver & Colleen Newton)
Vin Tanner leaned forward and stroked the ears of the black horse he was riding. They'd been together for a long time and forged a trusting relationship. Vin smiled when he realised that he trusted the horse and enjoyed its company, more than he did most people.
He'd had few friends in his life, though in the last year he'd been lucky to add a few names to that list; none more important than that of Chris Larabee. He trusted Chris with his life; they had become like brothers, each sensing the other's thoughts. Vin, a loner, felt comfortable in Chris' company. Both had suffered hardship, lost their families, seen and suffered brutality from fellow men. They'd learnt to survive the hard way and although they both probably wanted an easier, settled existence, they knew that they'd never succeed in truly establishing it; their past lives would ensure that.
Clicking the animal onwards, Vin lurched forward when it stumbled. Jumping from the saddle, he saw the creature standing with it's near foreleg raised.
"Damn, whatcha gone and done now? " he muttered to the animal as he carefully stroked a hand down the injured leg; breathing a sigh of relief when he found no broken bones. Checking the foot he found a stone embedded in it, an easy thing to happen.
"Whoa boy, let's get that out of there, see what damage there is." Using his knife, he cleaned the foot out carefully. There was no sign of injury, but when he tried to lead the horse forward, it struck out lame. The foot was bruised.
Vin knew he could still ride the horse but it would be in distress and the bruise would take longer to heal. He was only a few hours from town and the idea was tempting; it had been a while since he'd slept in a bed, even if it was the one in his wagon. However another night under the stars wouldn't hurt and by morning the horse should be sound enough to ride.
He stroked the animal's head. "Alright boy, you win. But do ya think ya can struggle over to those rocks down there? It's a better place to bed down than out here in the open." Before moving the animal further, he unhitched the saddle and bedroll, dumped them on the ground, and then slowly led the horse down to the outcrop. Then he went back to collect his gear.
It was late before he finally settled down. He made a supper of what few provisions he'd got left in his saddlebags, shared what was left of his water with the horse then made sure it was comfortable. He then rolled out his blanket, thankful that the weather was still clement. A light sleeper, he was already getting to his feet, gun in hand, when he was pistol whipped from behind.
+ + + + + + +
The town was asleep; the last drunk long since returned home or thrown in jail to sleep it off. The street lights; small fires burning on the edge of the boardwalk, burned low, no longer casting eerie shadows. Two men walked down the gloriously named Main Street, checking doors and alleyways. Making certain everything was secure before they turned in for the night.
"You've been quiet tonight, Chris. Somethin botherin ya?" Buck Wilmington ambled along next to his friend, Chris Larabee.
Larabee frowned, his face gathering more creases than normal. "Don't know Buck. Somethin." He shrugged. "I got a gut feelin... somethin ain't right..." He peered towards the outskirts of town, searching.
"Vin'll be okay," Buck said quietly, suddenly understanding Chris' worry. "You said yerself he may not be back until tomorrow."
"Yeah, you're right," Larabee didn't sound convinced. He still had that niggling feeling that his friend Vin Tanner needed him. But how could he explain that to Buck without making himself sound a fool. Vin was more than capable of taking care of himself; he'd proved it on more than one occasion.
Buck patted Chris on the back, his moustache twitching when he smiled. "Hell, Vin would be embarrassed if he knew you worried about him so much. He aint no kid. He can take care of himself."
Smiling back, Chris replied, "I worry about you all. Especially you Buck. You're always gettin into scrapes. You're more trouble than JD... and the trouble you get into with women..."
Forging a pained expression, Buck said in mock outrage, "Me! I'm the perfect gent. The ladies all love me."
"Sure they do." Chris headed towards the jail; it was their turn to watch over the prisoners. "Let's turn in old friend, that's if we'll get any sleep." They could already hear the noisy snoring erupting from the cells.
+ + + + + + +
Vin opened his eyes and tried to focus on his surroundings. The movement of the trotting horse beneath him didnt help the pain in his head. He wasn't riding the animal; he was trussed up and slung over the saddle. His hands and feet tightly bound, with another rope fastened around his neck then slung under the horses belly to be hitched back to the saddle, to stop him from slipping off.
It wasn't Vin's own horse and for a moment, he pondered on the plight of the animal. Had his captors shot it because it slowed them down? Then his thoughts returned to his own predicament. Who'd attacked him? How many? Moreover, why? Were they bounty hunters returning him to Tascosa? He tried to turn his head to see if he could recognise anyone, but the rope around his neck tightened at the slightest movement.
The riders continued at a steady pace, stopping only once to water the horses and refresh themselves. When Vin croaked that he was thirsty, he was ignored. No one offered to speak to him during the journey, it was if he didn't exist.
+ + + + + + +
As day turned to night the small group of riders pulled up and Vin heard a deep, soulless voice say, "We'll make camp here for the night boys. Get that piece of trash off the horse. The animal needs to rest."
Vin stayed relaxed as he was manhandled and thrown to the ground. If he were to make an escape, he would have to wait until the time was right. However, there was a more needy problem.
"I need to pee," he said to anyone willing to listen.
A kick in the small of his back was the only answer forthcoming.
"If I pee in my pants, I'll stink. Which one of you'll want to watch over me then?"
He was dragged to his feet, choking as the rope cut into his throat. The dark voiced man loomed in front of him. Vin couldn't help but gape at the man's ugliness. He was tall; a good six inches taller than Vin and he also wore his hair long. It was a dirty blond colour and was in need of a good groom. His face was pock marked and a thin scar ran down his left cheek, and his cruel, deep set eyes were of the palest blue.
He gave Vin a cold, evil look, placing calloused hands on Vin's jaw, squeezing roughly. "Try anythin stupid and you'll live to regret it. Do you understand me boy?"
Unable to speak, Vin gave him the faintest of nods.
The man released his grip, then turned Vin around, unfastening his aching arms before binding them in front of him.
"Eli," he called to one of the men unsaddling the horses, "Take this dog for a walk." He passed the other man the rope that was still wound around Vin's neck. "Frank, Carl... you go with them. If the dog tries anything stupid, shoot it in the knee. The boss wants it alive."
The men grumbled at having to baby-sit their prisoner, but fear of their leader far outweighed their reluctance to do toilet duty.
While he stood, albeit it shakily, relieving himself against the rocks, Vin scanned the area as best he could in the near dark. He frowned when he realised that although they'd travelled many miles, they'd not covered that much in area. The landscape was well known to him. They were no more than twenty miles north of town. What were they doing? Didn't they realise Chris and the others would soon uncover the ruse?
A sharp tug on the rope around his neck brought him out of his reverie.
"Come on, yer done..." the man named Frank growled as he dragged Vin back into camp.
"Truss him back up."
"Can I have a drink... please?" Vin hated to beg, but his throat was parched.
"Sure..." The leader brought his canteen over to Vin and poured water onto the ground in front of him. "If you want it, you'll have to eat dirt."
"Why? Why ya doin this?"
"Money; what else?"
Once Vin was bound securely, he was dumped next to a tree and fastened to it. He could now see all of the men. There were four of them, filling their bellies with bacon and beans before settling down for the night. His own belly grumbled loudly, he hadn't eaten for a day. They wouldn't let him starve, he knew that, but it was going to be uncomfortable for him. And he still had no idea who his captors were, except that they were working for someone else.
His first assumption, that they were bounty hunters had been proven wrong. This was personal, which made it far more dangerous. He wondered if the others were worried about him yet. He doubted it. They probably wouldn't become concerned for another couple of days, maybe a week, by which time he could be anywhere... maybe dead. Smiling ruefully, Vin pondered on the life he'd lived. A lonely life; would it be a lonely death.
+ + + + + + +
The following day the journey continued. By now Vin was aware enough to realise they had crossed and re-crossed their tracks. He guessed they were still less than thirty miles from Four Corners.
The ugly man; Vin had heard one of the others call him Cassidy, was good at his job. Vin himself might be able to follow the tracks, but he doubted if Chris or the others were capable; they'd soon become confused. Yet he still couldn't work out the reason for doing it.
He'd been allowed a mouthful of food and a few sips of water before the journey had recommenced, then he'd been slung over the saddle once more. His arms were screaming out in agony at being continually tied behind his back and his neck was raw where the rope cut into his flesh.
Eventually, the horsemen rode up to a small homestead. From his unusual angle on the horse, Vin thought it looked like the old McKinley place. Jack McKinley had died of pneumonia a few months previous and his wife, not strong in health herself, had moved back east. The talk in town was that a stranger had bought the place, but no one knew for certain.
Guess I'm about to find out Vin thought as he was manhandled into the three room accommodation.
"Get those horses seen to!" Cassidy yelled to one of his men. "Settle them in the barn, just in case we have nosy visitors passing by."
Vin was marched through the main living quarters into a small bedroom at the back and fastened securely to the bed by the chains that were already in place. Left alone for a while he fought against the chains, a futile gesture but he was angry and irritated; neither trait was useful to him. Giving up the battle, he lay back and listened, trying to hear what was being said in the other room. The voices were muffled, but he was sure he could hear a woman speaking.
Eventually, Eli and two other men came back into the room and once more they went through the ritual of guarding him as he was trundled outside to the outhouse. His feet and hands were shackled, but he had enough freedom to see to his needs. He was then told to wash himself in a bucket of cold water drawn up from the well. Throat parched from the dusty journey, he drank plenty of the ice cold liquid as well. He was then returned to the bedroom and the heavy chains were locked in place.
I gotta look clean before ya kill me? Vin joked.
"Not gonna die yet," Eli replied as he checked the shackles. "But yer goin' to have a visitor."
"Anyone I know?"
"Eli!" Cassidy stood in the doorway. "Don't talk to him. Boss don't want no one talkin to him."
"Sorry..." Eli practically slithered out of the room, so desperate was he to get away from Cassidy's glacial stare.
"When's mvisitor arrivin?" Vin asked, trying to goad Cassidy into conversation.
The other man stared coldly at him, then smirked, saying, "Soon... sooner than you'd want. Then we're gonna see some fun."
Vin, normally unconcerned by posturing threats, was slightly unnerved by Cassidy's comments. Up to yet there'd been no chance of escape. Cassidy and his men were good, their strategy sound, which meant someone with intelligence was running the show and intelligent people were more dangerous than the usual imbeciles he usually had to deal with. Again he heard a woman's voice and there was the slightest whiff of lavender in the air.
A woman? Could his nemesis be a woman? As the voice came nearer to the door, he realised he was about to find out. Cassidy opened the door and a woman sashayed into the room.
"Has he been fed yet?" she asked without looking once at her prisoner.
"Not since this morning Ma-am." Cassidy placed the only chair in the room, next to the bed. The woman settled down into and finally acknowledged her captive.
"Mr. Tanner, I hope my men are treating you well?"
Saying nothing, Vin tried to peer through the black veil that covered her face. Her head was also hidden under a dark shawl. Not one tendril of hair escaped it. Who was she? Why was she doing this? Her voice sounded faintly familiar. It was a clipped Eastern accent, yet there was the underlying twang of the South to it.
"You are a quiet man, Mr. Tanner. Normally I find silence an appealing trait, but you... in you I find it insolent." She reached over him and began to unfasten his shirt. Let's see if I can make you... scream. Once his skin had been exposed, she calmly asked Cassidy for the knife he carried. "I hope it's clean, I don't want Mr. Tanner succumbing to a fever."
Vin flinched as the cold metal touched his belly and Cassidy was pleased to finally glimpse a glint of fear in the prisoner's eyes.
"Hold him down," she ordered. Cassidy walked behind the bed, leaned over and pressed Vin's shoulders to the mattress.
"This may hurt...." The woman began to slice into Vin's belly, delicately carving out her initials. Her breathing became erratic as she enjoyed the dominance she possessed; over not only Tanner, but also Cassidy, who looked on enthralled and excited by her handling of the weapon. The only disappointment for her, was Vin's refusal to cry out or acknowledge what was happening to him.
Cassidy released Vin when she'd finally finished her artwork and went to stand beside her. Thin trails of blood appeared where the knife had passed over his skin. Vin fought against the chains holding him to the bed, raising his head in an attempt to see what had been branded onto his belly.
"Want to know what it says? " The voice, so feminine and gentle, belied the evilness of the woman standing before him. How Vin wanted to rip away the veil shrouding her face, to see if she looked as beautiful as her voice or as ugly as her mind. Removing her lace gloves, she traced a finger over the oozing liquid.
"It says..." she chuckled. "No, I don't think so. When the time is right I'll be only to willing to tell you my name." The bloodied finger was placed on Vin's lips and smeared over them. "You have no idea, have you... poor boy." Licking the remaining blood from her fingers she turned to Cassidy. "Make sure he's kept fed. I don't want anything happening to him until I say so."
"Yes Ma-am," Cassidy replied, relieved that he was working for her and not against.
Vin turned his face to the wall. His humiliation burned deeper than the scars. To be branded like an animal; a brand he would carry for eternity.
"Some woman, huh?" Cassidy sneered as he checked the chains. "And now you belong to her."
Through gritted teeth, Vin snarled, "Go to hell. I belong to no one..."
"Probably will end up there, when the time comes... I'll send Eli in to make sure the wound is clean..." Cassidy chuckled as he went to the door. He was having fun working for the mysterious woman.
+ + + + + + +
Buck knew where to find Chris, but in the dark, the gunslinger would be difficult to spot. He stepped of the sidewalk, skirted the night-fires and slipped into the shadows; his destination the livery stables. He found Chris crouched by the shuttered doors, as still as a statue. Buck grinned cheerlessly as Chris' gaze settled on him, then slumped down unceremoniously by his troubled friend's side.
Larabee went back to watching the main street, his view from where they sat unobstructed and aided by the odd silence from inside the building behind him. A herd member was missing, the horses would be sense its return before any human. Wilmington's own grey animal had become attached to the big black gelding, and was finding it hard to settle without its companion in the next stall. The riders of the horses were also becoming agitated; a member of their own herd was absent. However, none were as troubled as Chris Larabee.
Buck turned to his friend, his voice gentle as if calming a maverick horse; "Maybe Vin got things of his own to take care of."
Chris shook his head, his eyes never leaving the street. "He would have said," he stated flatly, stopping Buck's statement with a raised hand. "I need to think this through, Buck. If you don't mind."
Buck grimaced, then sighed, "I do mind, Chris... we all do. And it ain't right, you takin' it personal."
Larabee flashed his eyes angrily towards Wilmington. "It is personal! I sent him over to Tucson with the prisoner. He should have taken someone to watch his back."
"We've gone over this before. Vin don't need no baby sitter." Buck stood up, he was too tired to argue and he knew Chris' stubborn nature wouldn't give in. "We've been talkin... and decided that if Vin ain't back tomorrow, we'll have a parley, come up with some ideas."
Larabee nodded. "Mary Travis has sent out some telegrams. She's expecting answers in the mornin... tell the boys we'll meet in the saloon at noon."
Buck nodded to his friend. "Thank you, God," he muttered to himself. He'd been expecting more trouble from Larabee, which was why he'd volunteered to go and talk to him. He knew the man better than anyone else, including Vin Tanner, did and he'd never seen him so withdrawn and intense since the death of his wife and child.
+ + + + + + +
The other patrons in the saloon stayed well away from the six men huddled around the corner table. The townsfolk of Four Corners knew there was something troubling the men hired by Judge Travis to protect their town, but no-one, apart from Mary Travis knew what it was. Most of the community had noticed that the seventh member of the group was missing; had been for days; and unfounded gossip was spreading that maybe he was dead.
Chris Larabee had heard the gossip and wanted to shout from the rooftops that it wasn't true; but how could he, when he wasn't sure himself. Glancing around the table at the other five men, he saw hopeful expectation on some faces, uncertainty on others. He was their leader and it was time to make decisions; to give out the orders. Yet how could he when the man he depended upon to give the right advice wasn't by his side. Vin Tanner was his right hand man, always there with his own personal point of view. A quiet young man, who like Chris and the others, found a strength and comfort in their exclusive cadre.
"What are we going to do Chris?" It had to be JD who asked the obvious question. The youngest member of the group, always bursting with unbridled enthusiasm was strangely subdued, yet still he looked towards Larabee, hoping the gunfighter would make everything right.
"I'm going looking for him, JD, was the simple reply.
"Has Mrs. Travis received any communication from Judge Travis yet?" Ezra Standish asked in his soft Southern drawl. His eyes held the same concern as JD's.
Chris nodded; at least he had some news to impart. They'd have to decide for themselves if it was good or bad news.
"She had a telegram from the judge, this morning. He made discreet inquiries in Tascosa. Vin isn't there and the Sheriff hasn't heard of any bounty hunter bringing him in."
"What about Tucson. Has she heard from there yet?"
"Vin delivered his prisoner safely, ten days ago. He said he was returning home straight away... he should have been back Thursday."
"Do you think it's worth riding out that way, just in case?" Nathan asked. "Maybe he's had an accident... or..." He didn't want to speculate any further.
Chris wasn't sure what to think, he was finding it difficult to clear his head of anything but the thought of Vin lying dead somewhere, but the others looked on and waited expectantly.
Josiah, the oldest and wisest of the Seven, sensed the uncertainty in Chris. He was a little surprised at such a frailty in Larabee. Vin's disappearance had affected the man more than he cared to admit. Seeing that Chris was searching for the right words to say, he spoke quietly. "I'll take a ride over there... take Nathan with me," he added before Chris could voice any doubts.
"Okay..." the blond nodded. "And I'll head north..."
They all turned towards Josiah. Everyone had a great respect for him. Chris was grateful for Josiah's intervention, but he wasn't sure why the preacher had negated his idea. He looked at him for an explanation.
"Chris, you stay here. The townsfolk need to see you around. Let JD and Ezra go."
"I..." Chris faltered. JD was still classed as a greenhorn and could sometimes act hot-headed. Ezra was adept at finding trouble wherever he went.
Buck also had doubts, but someone had to stay with Chris, who was on the edge of losing it. Moreover, Josiah was correct, the town needed protection. If the local ranchers found out that it was unprotected they'd ride into town and tear it apart.
"Chris, we're not children," JD replied seeing Larabee's doubts. "You have to let us help you. You can't do this alone."
Chris finally managed a smile as he said to Josiah, "From the mouths of babes "
"I am not..." JD began with bristling indignation.
Chris raised a hand to stop the forthcoming tirade. "Go, but the pair of you, keep out of trouble."
Now it was the turn of Ezra to act disgruntled. "Ah can assure you, Mr. Larabee, Ah am the soul of discretion and avoid trouble at all costs."
"You'd better this time, cause if anything happens to JD... Buck left the rest of the threat unspoken. Wilmington had taken on the guardianship of the youngster, acting as a surrogate older brother.
"Let's not fall out amongst ourselves," Josiah said sternly. "If we want to find Vin we must work as a team."
They all nodded in agreement. Then, in mutual silence, they drank up, before leaving the saloon to begin their search.
As the saloon doors swung noisily after their departure, the rest of the drinkers sighed with relief.
+ + + + + + +
"No!" Vin struggled feebly with Eli and Cassidy as he was dragged into the barn. He was exhausted; four days of water depravation and lack of food had slowly worn his spirit down. In addition, the woman's threats were beginning to alarm him.
He'd also been refused sleep, but apart from that first evening, when she'd scarred him, she'd contained her torment to torturing him mentally. But as he saw her standing there, whip in hand, he knew the physical abuse was about to begin.
Digging his heels into the dirt, Vin brought them to a halt. Momentarily taken aback by their prisoner's show of strength, the men stumbled and Vin took his chance. He kicked Cassidy on the shin, causing the man to loosen his grip, enough for Vin to swing his shackled arms viciously and knock Eli to the ground. Then he was moving, hobbling towards the open barn door.
The whip caught him around the ankles and he toppled to the ground. He lay there panting, his meagre strength exhausted by the escape attempt; and angry at his weakness.
"You imbeciles!" she screamed. "Do I have to do everything?"
Cassidy, still rubbing his bruised leg, limped over to Vin and kicked him in the ribs. "You're gonna pay for that."
Eli scrambled back to his feet and helped Cassidy drag Vin deeper into the barn where he was strung from one of the beams; his feet barely touching the ground.
He swung helplessly as Eli ripped the shirt off him, then the men stood back and watched in awe as the woman flaunted her prowess with the whip. If she'd enjoyed using the knife on her prisoner, she revelled in slicing the whip into Vin's back, showing great dexterity as she laid criss-cross patterns across his flesh.
The noise from the whip and the smell of blood that began to permeate the air unsettled the horses. They began to pace their stalls, snorting and stamping the ground. Eli tried to calm them, but they could hear the uncertainty in his voice and knew not to trust him. Cassidy wondered how long the woman could continue with the beating; she seemed tireless. Yet, she refused to give in until Vin begged for mercy.
Finally, the young tracker's courage failed him and he cried out, repeatedly. Then came the tears, unwanted visitors and he was unable to stop them. His last conscious thought was that he hadn't cried since the day they placed his beautiful Momma into the ground.
+ + + + + + +
A bucket of water thrown over his face brought Vin back into unwelcome awareness. He'd been released from the beam and lay curled up on the dirty barn floor. The chains were back in place. The damned chains! They were torturing him; laughing at him. They'd turned a free spirit into a caged animal and they were breaking his heart.
Cassidy was staring down at him, shaking his head, "What did you do to piss her off?"
Vin didn't answer. What could he say? He didn't know what he'd done to deserve the punishment and he was past caring. Closing his eyes, he was only half listening as Cassidy informed him that the barn was his new 'home'.
"She agrees with me. Dogs don't belong in a house. So from now on you stay chained up in here."
Raising himself to a sitting position, Vin whispered, "I prefer the company in here."
"Still got some spunk boy," Cassidy replied in appreciation. " Shame bout that, cos it just means more whippin." He kicked out, knocking Vin back down. "If you know what's good for you boy, you'll stay there."
Vin listened to Cassidy as the man walked from the barn, closing the doors behind him. He forced his aching body to relax. His back hurt; God how his back hurt. Cassidy's taunts haunted him. He was nothing more than a dog to this woman. A mangy cur to be beaten at her slightest whim.
Looking towards the stalls, he was sure he could see contempt on the horses faces. They were treated well and now that the commotion had ended, were settling down once more. The only disturbance in their lives was the bloodied creature sharing their home.
There was enough chain for Vin to crawl into a shadowy corner of the barn. Every movement a torturous feeling. He was in need of medical attention, but doubted he'd receive any assistance from his jailers. If only Nathan was there... Nathan the healer... Josiah the preacher... Ezra the gambler... JD the greenhorn... Buck the joker... Chris...
Chris Vin whispered. "Where are you?" He curled deeper into himself, chanting repeatedly, "m not dead Chris, not dead... Had his friends forsaken him, like his Momma? No! he wouldn't allow doubts to enter his thoughts. The she-devil may have broken his body, but he'd be damned if he let her into his mind.
+ + + + + + +
Chris reacted automatically to the gentle female voice uttering his name, "Good day, Mrs. Larson." He attempted a smile, but it didn't quite come off. He'd just watched four of his men ride out of town and an irrational thought kept entering his head, 'What if they don't come back? Are they heading into trouble?'
"Mr. Larabee, are you well?"
"Sorry Ma-am..." He tried another smile, this time it worked. The woman deserved it just for brightening up his day. "I haven't seen you around lately."
"I had to go out of town... on a family matter. I was just going over to the hotel."
"It'll be my pleasure to escort you " Chris fell into step beside her, quietly taking in her beauty. She wore a deep green velvet dress; the colour of it contrasting well against her auburn hair. She was tall for a woman and walked with a straight back; chin high.
Ezra, smitten by her beauty, had lavished praise upon her 'breeding'. Stating that a woman like that shouldn't be allowed to travel alone. Shed stepped off the stagecoach, two months before and had stayed at the town's only decent hotel, saying that she'd found a deep sense of peace in Four Corners.
Chris found her demeanour relaxing, something he needed right now. And although he found her attractive, there was no underlying sexual chemistry there. She'd told him, early on in their friendship that she'd just come out of mourning for her father.
Mary Travis had shown scepticism towards the young woman, and so, strangely enough, had Vin. Chris had put Mary's objections down to jealousy; she was interested in Chris for herself, everyone knew that, but Vin was a different matter. He'd never explained his uncertainty about her; now he never would. Chris stopped dead in his tracks at the unsavoury thought, nearly causing the young woman to stumble.
"Mr. Larabee are you unwell? The colour just drained from your face." She had a trace of Southern accent, not as pronounced as Ezra's, but still there.
"Just thinking about a friend."
"Oh, you mean Mr. Tanner. I'm afraid I've heard the gossip," she replied shamefacedly. " If there is anything I can do." She smiled ruefully; "I know what you're thinking. What can a woman do to help? Never the less, you look as if you need someone to talk to. And I am a good listener."
Chris thanked her for the offer, but declined. "You've suffered enough yourself. I can't burden you with my troubles."
I leave it up to you sir." She stopped outside the hotel door; "You know where to find me." She swept into the building, ignoring the glances leaping her way from all the adoring men folk.
Chris continued down to the stables; he needed a change of scenery, his horse needed the exercise. His thoughts returned to Victoria Larson. When she'd arrived in town, all the men folk had openly admired her. Buck had made his usual play for her and so had Ezra. Even JD had strutted around like a peacock! Josiah had been more reserved in his attentions. Only Nathan and Vin had been immune to her beauty. Nathan's interest was in Rain, the beautiful young woman who lived in the Seminole village. Vin had shown no interest in the new arrival. She'd tried to make conversation with him, only to be spurned continually.
Buck had been angry at Vin's coldness and poor Ezra confused. Chris had asked him about it once, but all that Vin would say was that beauty was sometimes an illusion.
It had been a deep remark, one Chris could associate with Josiah, but not the quiet spoken tracker. He'd never mentioned Victoria Larson again; the look in Vin's eyes told him that the subject was closed.
+ + + + + + +
Twilight surrounded the town, softening the edges of the buildings as the darkness gathered. Chris watched the fires being lit in the street, mentally ticking off another day that Vin was missing.
Sitting outside the corral, he kept his vigil, despite Buck being on watch in the jail house. He knew how his men felt about the long hours he searched the street, but unbeknown to them he needed the space and time to think and plan.
Ezra and JD were still out there looking. They'd be returning from Texas any day now, unaware that Vin's horse had been found by Nettie Wells. The animal was in poor condition, being lame on two legs and undernourished. It had hobbled onto Nettie's small ranch, knowing it from Vin's many trips out there to help the elderly woman. The animal had instinctively sensed safety there.
Nettie had sent Casey into town with the news immediately and Chris had ridden out to see if he could track where the animal had come from; but his tracking skills weren't in the same league as Vin's. The only thing certain was that the horse hadn't travelled too far, it wasn't sound enough. Moreover, it had been lame for more than a day.
Leaving the sick animal at Nettie's to recover, he'd returned to town and informed Buck and Mary of what he'd found. The discovery of the horse had brought up even more questions. Had Vin fallen from the animal; it was doubtful as he was an excellent horseman, but if he had, was he lying injured somewhere or maybe someone had found him and was already tending to him? They all hoped that was the answer, but accepted that it was wishful thinking.
The other possibility was that someone had captured Vin, which led them back to a bounty hunter, but if that were true, why hadn't there been any more news from Tascosa?
The only thing to do was go out and search for him, no matter how long that search took. Chris was ready to ride at a moment's notice and now regretted letting the others persuade him to stay in town.
Nathan and Josiah had returned from their search empty handed and had been back a full day. They were willing to go back out, but they and their mounts needed a day's rest.
It was all taking too long. He shouldn't be here, letting the others do all the work; he should be out on the trail, looking for his friend.
"Dammit!" He grumbled, standing up and heading into the barn to saddle up his horse, stopping dead, when he saw two horses galloping into town and coming to a halt outside the jail.
Chris hurried across the street to the animals and was stunned by the sight in front of him and only began to react when Buck came charging out of the jail house and grabbed hold of the first, terrified animal. "Whoa boy ... steady"
The animal quieted enough for him to drag the injured rider from the saddle.
"What have you done to him? What the hell have you done!" Buck grabbed the rider by the collar and dragged him to his feet, shaking him violently.
Now loose, the second animal wandered around aimlessly, wary of the gathering crowd of onlookers and Chris gasped in horror when he saw what Buck had already seen; JD's body slumped across the saddle.
"He's badly hurt," Ezra cried, trying to free himself from Buck's grasp.
Buck punched the younger man, sending him sprawling into the dirt, then he set upon him, banging Ezras head on the ground as he raged, "If he dies, I'm gonna take you apart, piece by piece."
Chris stared at the horse's bloodstained flanks; JD's blood.
"Listen to me, Buck, JD needs help," Ezra gasped, We were "
Buck made a growling noise in his throat then hit Ezra on the jaw. "You let him take a bullet to save your own worthless neck."
Reeling more from the words than the blow, Ezra lost his balance and fell heavily to the ground. He braced himself for more punishment, but it didn't come, he opened his eyes and saw Buck struggling to free himself from Chris' grasp.
"Buck, stop it. JD needs help now. Take him to Nathan's." Chris held onto Buck's sleeve until the raging man stilled.
Buck pulled himself free, then strode over to JD, pushing away the gathering townsfolk. He untied the boy's hands and tenderly lifted him into his arms.
"You hang in there, kid," he told the unconscious form, "We're gonna take real good care of you." Turning, he hurried through the parting crowd and over to the clinic, yelling out Nathan's name.
Lying in the dirt, and gasping for air, Ezra stared up into the empty eyes of their leader. For a moment Chris stood stock still, an uneasy breeze picking at his long black coat the only movement. Then he dropped to one knee by Ezra's side, causing the injured man to shy away from him.
Chris reached inside Ezra's coat, moving it aside to reveal a blood stained shirt; the patch bright and red.
"You hurt bad?" he asked Ezra as he helped him to a sitting position.
The younger man couldn't help the gasp that escaped his lips as the newly opened wound bit back, "Mah suffering is nothing compared to that inflicted upon young Mr. Dunne," he replied. "We were ambushed coming back into town, no more than an hour from here. There was no sign of Vin in Texas," he added apologetically.
"I know. We'll talk later. Best get you to Nathan." Chris half lifted Ezra to his feet and winding the injured man's arms around his own shoulders, helped him walk the short distance to the stairs leading up to the clinic. He had take more of the southerners weight as they struggled up the steps, and once there, Ezra paused,
"Ah'm not so sure this is a good idea," he said, remembering Buck's threat.
"I'll take care of Buck," Chris replied, pushing open the door.
+ + + + + + +
At first light, the following morning, Chris saddled his horse and slipped out of Four Corners, following the trail that Ezra and JD had lain down. He needed to move quickly as the skies were overcast and rain threatened. He clicked the horse into a trot and followed the skittering hoof prints back down the dusty road.
The journey to the ambush site took him almost an hour to reach, suggesting that Ezra had set a frantic pace for the poor beasts that bore him and JD to town. Chris circled the area for a while to be sure he was alone. It was merely a precaution; instinct told him the ambushers had left the scene long ago.
Dismounting well away from the place JD had fallen, Chris walked over the hastily covered tracks. He dropped to one knee; wild dogs had scratched away the covering of earth to reveal JD's blood staining the parched ground. Although the dirt track had been brushed, there were still telltale signs of a struggle in the sparse grasses by its edges. The ground rose steeply to Chris' left, becoming woodland towards the top; this would be where the men lay in wait for Ezra and JD's return.
The grasses to Chris' left bore the scars of a horse's thrashing hooves, suggesting that JD's mount had fallen after its rider had taken a bullet. There were no signs that the men had chased or charged after his friends. Without talking to Ezra he could only guess as to what had happened after the initial shots.
Somehow, Ezra had found the time to dismount, place JD back in the saddle, (no mean feat, with a terrified horse and a dead weight) and tie him in place before remounting an equally frightened animal and heading out. Perhaps Ezra's flight was possible if there was only one man laying in wait for them. Chris walked back down the trail and remounted his horse, and nudging the animal with his heels he turned and headed up the slope.
He found the men's hiding place almost at the top of the rise, perhaps explaining why they didn't get a clean shot at his friends. The surprise was, there had been four of them lying in wait; Ezra and JD should have been filled with bullets.
He looked down the slope to where his men had fallen and shook his head. What was the point of waiting for them to return, shoot them then let them go, then cover the place where they had fallen? He glanced down the opposite slope and felt sure he could follow the gunmen's trail through the woodland.
At first, the trees gave up their secrets. Broken twigs urged him forward through glades and valleys but as he rode deeper into its heart, the wood began to close in. Chris felt the hairs stand up on the back of his neck and the black gelding began to shy under him.
"Whoa," he soothed, stroking the animal's neck. The momentary lack of concentration caused him to lose the path. He circled carefully, unable to pick up the lost trail. He dropped from the saddle and leading the horse forward, searched the ground, willing it to give up the ambushers tracks. He followed a sketchy, single horse trail to an outcrop of rock then stopped, cursing softly. He knew of only one man who could track across rock and that man was lost.
Retracing his steps, Chris searched for signs of the other riders. The light under the trees was poor and Chris struggled, making out circular trails in the dirt but never finding a lead. The riders had done a fine job of confusing their trail to stop anyone tracing their steps; they'd probably struck out over the rocks afterwards. Chris pulled himself back into the saddle, then headed out over the outcrop. It would take time but he would circle the rocks until he found the riders exit.
The woods became darker and then the rain began to fall. Chris pulled his coat closer around him and let the horse have its head; he was weary, but determined to go on.
Each turn the horse took blurred into the same grey pattern. Soon Chris had forgotten the reason for his search; grimly holding himself into the saddle, his eyes fixed to the sodden earth.
Rudderless, the horse turned away from the outcrop and picked its way through the woods towards home. In the saddle, Chris swayed, slumping forward. He didn't hear the storm around him, or notice the passage of time. The horse slipped and slid its way down the same hillside it had been asked to alight that morning, displacing its rider as it fought to stay on its feet.
Chris hit the ground at a pace that knocked the wind out of him, leaving him writhing and groaning on wet hillside. Once the pain had passed and he was able to draw air into his lungs, he rolled onto his back, staring up at the driving rain. A wet muzzle came into sight and soon the horse was blowing warm breath on his face. Chris reached up and stroked the nose, thankful that the animal had stayed with him. He gathered his wits about him, then staggered to his feet, remounting the horse,
"Let's go home," he told it, urging it into a lope.
They walked the last half mile to Four Corners. The light was almost gone and Chris didn't want to find surprises waiting for him on the trail. He needed to get out his wet clothes then talk with Ezra; there were questions only the injured man could answer. Josiah met him at the corral, coming out of the church when he saw Chris turn onto Main Street.
Chris turned his sodden horse over to Yosemite, telling the man to make sure the animal was well fed. As soon as that was done, he fell into step with Josiah.
"We've been worried about you, The preacher said quietly.
Chris tried to hide his irritation; he understood that they were worried and as afraid as he was. "I rode back to where the ambush took place." He passed by the hotel, carrying on towards the small boarding house where he hoped to find a good fire.
"Did you see anythin?" The big man asked.
"No," Chris offered, turning to halt Josiah's progress, "How are they?"
Josiah sighed, "JD is bad, but Nathan's fixed him up good. Ezra has a fever; he's out cold."
Understanding the half asked question, Josiah shook his head, "Not a thing." He patted Chris on the arm before turning back to the church.
Chris watched Josiah go, his hopes of talking to Ezra dashed for the time being. As he turned, he almost fell over Mary Travis standing behind him, a heavy coat covering her head and shoulders. He took her elbow and drew her back under shelter.
She looked up at him, unable to keep the concern from her eyes. "I saw you ride in and I thought you might like somewhere quiet to dry off," she said, gesturing towards her home across the street, "You are welcome to share our fire tonight."
Chris was about to decline; he couldn't face questions and concern right now. He almost said the word, but somehow it came out wrong, "Thanks," he said roughly.
Dazed by his decision, he followed her back to her home.
+ + + + + + +
Standing on the church steps, Josiah smiled; thanking the Lord and Mary Travis for looking after lost souls. "But if you could find it in your heart, God, would you please return to us our lost lamb. We sure are missing him."
+ + + + + + +
Mary opened the door, the warm light spilling onto the doorstep. Stepping inside she pulled the coat from her shoulders and shook out her damp curls.
"Billy, it's time you were in bed," she said, shooing the small boy towards his room. The child looked disappointed; he enjoyed spending time with Chris, but he went without complaint, smiling shyly at Larabee as he passed by.
Mary turned, expecting the quiet man to follow her inside. Chris stood on the doorstep, his head lowered. Mary waited patiently, she knew how hard this would be for him. Eventually, he stepped inside and pulled off his wet coat, moving aside to let Mary close the door.
"Why don't you get out of those wet clothes," she said, taking him over to fireplace where undergarments and towels were warming.
His eyes searched her face for answers. She blushed.
"I still have some of my husband's clothes; you can use them."
Silently, he removed his hat then began unbuttoning his shirt. Mary moved away to the back of the room, turning her back, to allow his some privacy.
Chris removed his shirt and pants, then after taking a quick glance towards her, he slipped off his undergarment. He towelled his chilled flesh quickly then pulled on her husbands long johns. It slipped easily over his hips, but he was too tall and broad across the shoulders to wear it, so he tied it around his waist. There was a blanket warming next to the fire, so he picked it up and wrapped it around his still cold flesh, he then sat deep into the armchair that graced the fireplace and closed his eyes.
Mary was soon by his side, handing him a dish of broth. He looked up, his pale eyes haunted. She moved away to gather his clothes and spread them across the warm stone, realising he would not want to share his fears with her.
He enjoyed the meal; it warmed his belly through. Afterwards he closed his eyes again, the easy silence embracing him. It was time to sleep, here, with Mary as his guardian. Tonight it was all right to let go.
Mary took the dish away from the sleeping man's hands and placed it on the table Her heart skipped a beat as she watched him sleeping, his thick, dark blond hair still damp and spilling over his eyes. He looked so vulnerable, so young. She longed to reach out and touch him; to comfort him, yet she knew this man had long ago lost any use for that kind of solace. She had to content herself with mutual respect and the knowledge that he trusted her enough to see him like this, his defences down.
She stayed with him until the hour got late, then she slipped away to share her bed with Billy, just in case the town wanted to gossip about Chris' stay.
The next morning she rose early; almost dashing into the parlour; but Chris was gone, leaving her husband's garment and blanket neatly folded in the armchair.
Mary swallowed down her disappointment as she picked up the bundle from the chair and stroked the soft fabric. She'd hoped Chris would stay and talk to her but now she could see that it was just a silly dream. There would be no peace in the world for Chris Larabee, no matter what she thought she could offer him. Sighing heavily she put the cloth aside and began to prepare breakfast for her son.