THE GHOSTS OF MEMORY by Kim and Shawna



Ezra was beginning to feel the effects of the long day in the saddle. The hot sun coupled with the ill-treatment; and the lack of food were beginning to catch up with the gambler. Ezra eyed his partner worriedly. As badly as he was feeling, he could only imagine the misery that the wounded man was experiencing. Vin was hunched over in the saddle trying to ease the pain in his injured side.

Ezra nudged his horse closer to the tracker's. The tracker had become less responsive to Ezra's presence beside him as the day wore on. Fortunately, Colter and his men took little interest in their two captives while they were on horseback. However, Ezra had noticed that Tom Polk fingered his knife every time he looked back at the two.

They had just topped a small rise when Bob Colter pulled up. Ezra estimated that they'd been traveling for over 10 hours, with only 2 short breaks to give the horses water. Colter hadn't even allowed him to check Vin's bandage. Colter wouldn't allow the time it would take to untie the tracker and get him off the horse and back on. So Ezra had stayed in the saddle letting his injured friend rest against him as he gave him water and waited for Colter to signal his gang to get back on the trail. The horses were nearly spent. Glancing around, Ezra could see that the outlaws were almost as exhausted as he was. Vin, he noticed, was now completely unconscious. Reaching over Ezra placed a hand on Vin's arm. Feeling the heat even through the hide coat Ezra moved his hand to the tracker's bare neck. Lord, the man was hot. Wound fever, no doubt. Between the loss of blood, hard riding, lack of food, and no real rest, Ezra knew Vin was lucky to be alive.

"Jake, go down there and check things out. Make sure there ain't no posse waitin' for us." The place looked deserted, but Colter hadn't stayed out of prison by being stupid. By the looks of it Earl and the five men with him were still gone.

After about five minutes Jake came riding back towards the group. "All clear boss. Ain't no one around, including Earl."

Nodding Colter kicked his horse off and led them down into the deserted ranch yard. It was a ramshackle old place. The outbuildings looked ready to fall down at any minute. Tumbleweeds were piled up everywhere, against the old corral fences and filling the little fenced area which must have been a garden. A long time ago, Ezra surmised. There was a barn and there were two other smaller buildings aside from the tumbledown ranch house. A porch wrapped around the house was sagging in places. It looked like it would fall come the next hard wind. It was a desolate place, Ezra thought. A place that hadn't survived the harsh elements. A place where dreams died. Ezra shuddered at the thought. He had no intention of dying here.

Colter pulled his horse to a halt. Dismounting stiffly, he looked back at his captives speculatively. "Put them in the large shed near the barn," he finally told Polk. He dismissed Polk and began leading his horse into the barn.

Ezra dismounted as soon as he saw Polk turn back towards them. Moving to Vin, he managed to get the tracker off his horse. He gripped the unconscious tracker around the waist and pulled him close to keep him from collapsing into the dirt.

"Easy Mr. Tanner," the gambler murmured, although he wasn't at all sure that Vin could hear him. He looked past the tracker's pale face, to where Tom Polk was watching them both closely.

"Bring him over here," Polk ordered, motioning towards the larger of the two dilapidated sheds. He still had a score to settle with the southerner. However, Colter had made it clear to him that he couldn't kill Ezra. YET! He'd have to bide his time. That's OK, he thought. I got all the time in the world.

Ezra half carried, half dragged the helpless tracker into the building. The old shed was mostly empty. Nothing but dirt and cobwebs. There was one tiny window, too high up for Ezra even to see out of, but it let in just enough light, that Ezra could see what he was doing. He eased the tracker down, leaning him up against one wall. Vin moaned softly and one of his hands strayed to the knife wound in his side. Ezra quickly turned before Polk could shut the door.

"I need water, blankets, and we both require food," the southerner demanded. He knew that angering his captors could be dangerous, but he also knew that Vin needed help immediately. The tracker was too weak to wait for their captor's compassionate sides to emerge.

"You want water and blankets?" Polk sneered. "Get out here and get them off your horse yourself. I ain't no damn toady."

Ezra noticed immediately, that Polk hadn't said anything about food. Sighing, he placed his hand on Vin's forearm. "I'll be back," he told the unresponsive tracker. Patting Vin's arm lightly, he hurried to the door but Polk blocked his way.

"Just so's you remember," Polk said tracing his knife down Ezra's jaw, "You and me got some unfinished business." Ezra refused to flinch away from the cold steel.

"Is that intended to frighten me?" Ezra scoffed.

Polk grabbed him by his jacket collar and roughly shoved the gambler through the doorway. Ezra staggered a few steps. Damn, the brute was strong, Ezra thought to himself, as he regained his footing and headed towards his horse who was ground tied in the yard. He hurriedly unsaddled both his horse and Vin's. The saddle blankets were damp with the exhausted animals' sweat, but Ezra hadn't seen anything else to make a pallet for Vin in the shed. He grabbed their bedrolls, saddlebags and canteens, before hastily retreating to the shed, keeping a careful eye on Tom Polk. Ezra cursed himself for not having thought to carry an extra hideout gun in his saddlebags. That was another situation he would remedy when he got back to Four Corners.


Vin was awake when Ezra made his way into the shadowy room. Just getting off of his horse had revived the tracker considerably. At least riding would no longer be a factor in his partner's deteriorating condition, the gambler thought dejectedly. No, Bob Colter and the elusive Earl were much more tangible threats to his partner's health.

"How are you feeling, Mr. Tanner?" Ezra asked, as he set the supplies down and began making a pallet for the tracker.

"A lot better since we stopped." Vin answered truthfully. The trip from Bonita Creek to this place had been a nightmarish haze of pain for the young sharpshooter. Each step the horse took had sent hot needles through his side and threatened to send one of his broken ribs through his lungs.

"I believe you'll be more comfortable over here Mr. Tanner," Ezra pointed to the blankets as he helped the tracker to his feet. Ezra bit his bottom lip to keep from crying out, as his partner's weight pulled at his bruised ribs. Vin could barely stand and the few feet to the pallet seemed like a mile to the two men.

"Thanks, Ezra" Vin told the gambler, as he settled on the pallet. To Vin, the damp horse blankets were as soft as one of Ezra's feather beds. Especially after trying to sleep at Bonita Creek last night, and the hellish ride. He closed his eyes and was asleep within seconds.

Ezra watched the younger man sleep. Dark smudges under his eyes were clear indications of how exhausted the tracker was. Ezra was almost as tired as he was hungry. He'd just set down for a moment and get his strength back, before he examined the shed for a way out.

Ezra jerked out of the doze to find Vin watching him. Tanner knew the man was hurting a lot more than he was letting on. He'd only witnessed the tail end of the beating last night. He'd been on the receiving end of that kind of treatment before, and he knew what it could do to a man. He'd also felt Ezra's flinch, when he'd been forced to take Vin's weight and he'd witnessed the stiff manner in which the gambler was moving. Ezra rubbed the sleep from his eyes and pushed himself away from the supporting wall.

"You doin' . . .?"

"How are you?" Ezra and Vin broke off their inquiries into the other's health.

Vin grinned tiredly and Ezra chuckled. Ezra's stomach took that moment to loudly demand sustenance. Vin's grin widened at the embarrassed look on the gambler's face.

"They could at least be courteous enough to feed us. I might expire from hunger before this Earl has a chance to dispatch us from this life," Ezra's words were joking however, the humor didn't quite reach his eyes, or his voice.

"You ain't ever been hungry before, have you Ezra?" Vin asked knowingly.

"Mr. Tanner, one of the fundamental principles my mother instilled in me, was that adequate nutrition was essential to ensure that one's wits remained keen." Hunger had added a sharper note to the gambler's tone, than Vin had heard since Bob Colter had introduced Ezra to his gang.

"Sorry, but I didn't get time to pack no jerky, but I reckon they'll be bringin' us somethin' to eat, now that they ain't gotta worry about us tryin' to run off." Vin speculated in a low voice. "If they don't, the pains in yer gut will start to ease up soon anyway."

Ezra's studied the tracker sharply. Vin dropped his gaze and didn't meet the gambler's eyes. "You sound as if you have some experience with a lack of sustenance, Mr. Tanner?"

"Yeah, I've been hungry a few times." Vin closed his eyes, "I damned near died from it once." Vin's voice was so low, that Ezra had to strain to hear him.

The gambler held his breath, as he waited to see if the tracker would continue.

Finally after a long minute, Vin opened his eyes and began to speak softly. "My ma died when I was five years old. Some people came and got me, and took me to live in an orphanage. It weren't too bad there. I didn't have nobody lookin'out for me, but most of the time we got fed regular. There weren't never enough, but it was everyday. And they'd pass clothes down to us, when we were ready to bust outta what we already had. A preacher'd collect 'em on Sundays and from farmers he visited." Ezra noticed that Vin's eyes were distant, as if he was watching his memories unfold in front of him.

"We didn't go to school. The fella who run the place thought it was a waste. He didn't believe in lollygagging around with books all day." Vin spoke matter of factly, as he continued. "We'd get up in the mornin', have breakfast, and then we'd have chores to do till lunch. I weren't big enough to work in the fields then, so I'd help take care of the animals." "When I was about ten years old, they sent me to live with on a farm. I hated that place. Didn't take me long to figure out that Mr. Davidson was an asshole."

The vehemence in Vin's tone, when he spoke of the farmer surprised Ezra. The tracker was usually the most even-tempered person he knew. He was calm almost to the point of being placid. Ezra really only remembered seeing him that angry, when Eli Joe had been killed. No, that wasn't quite true, the gambler thought. Meanness had been known to infuriate the softhearted bounty hunter, faster than Chris Larabee could draw his gun.

Ezra blinked his eyes and sat up a little straighter, when he realized his thoughts had been drifting. He stole a glance at his partner's face, but if Vin had noticed it didn't show on his face. Ezra thought Tanner was not so much telling the story, as he was reliving it. The tracker's eyes were cloudy and there was a haunted expression, that Ezra didn't recall ever seeing on the man's face before.

" . . . had three little kids, all under five when I came to live there." Vin was saying. Miz Davidson was ok, but mostly she just went along with whatever her husband wanted. He was one of them fellas, thought he knew better than everybody else. It didn't much matter if he didn't have anymore idea than a gnat how to do somethin', he'd bluster up and talk for hours." Vin's eyes closed, and he winced a little, as though the unusual amount of talking he'd done had pained him physically.

Ezra was watching the tracker closely, and immediately moved closer to his side. "Do you want some water Mr. Tanner?" He inquired softly, as he offered the canteen to the tracker.

Vin took the canteen gratefully and after drinking a small amount, passed it back to Ezra. "Thanks Ezra," Vin told him in his raspy voice.

After a few minutes, Vin picked his story up where he'd left off ."Davidson musta been the worst farmer ever hoed a field. He barely raised enough food for eatin', never mind havin' a crop to sell. Anyway, one day he up and decides it's time to pull up stakes, and that they was gonna hitch on with a wagon train that was headin' for California. I heard him and Miz Davidson arguin' bout whether or not they was gonna take me with 'em. He was of a mind to send me back to the orphanage, but Miz Davidson wouldn't hear of it. She said they couldn't send me back, on account of they was doin' their Christian duty. Hell, I seen better Christians in a saloon on Saturday night after payday, than he was, but she just kept at him, till he finally said OK. I figured I'd just as soon go back to the orphanage, than spend another minute with him, but nobody was askin' my opinion."

"So, three days later, we're joinin' up with the wagon train. Christ, we weren't two days offa that farm, and Davidson's tellin' the wagon boss, he oughta do this, or he oughta do that. The wagon boss musta been a patient man, cause he'd just say thanks for tryin' ta help, and go about his business. Davidson seen right off, that the boss weren't payin' him a bit o' mind, and it bugged him somethin' fierce. He'd mutter under his breath, that the boss was gonna be sorry for not listenin' to him."

"Then about a month into the trip, we was halfway to California, and crossin' the desert. Davidson got a bug in his crawl, that we was takin' the long way, and he'd pull out this map he bought, and show anybody who'd listen, he had this real good route all picked out. He even went to the wagon boss, and told him about his good idea. That man's patience ran out right there. He told Davidson he was an idiot, and that he'd just better keep them good ideas of his to hisself. O' course old Davidson, he couldn't just listen to the man who'd been travelin' them parts for longer than Davidson had been alive. He decided he was gonna go his own way, and he'd be sitting on his porch laughin' at them other folks when they finally got to California."

"I didn't wanta go with him for nothin'. I even asked the wagon boss to let me hire on with him. Told him I'd work real hard, just let me stay with the train. He told me he'd see what he could do. And he did too, but Davidson was so pissed with him for callin' him an idiot, that he just puffed up and started blatherin' about he was responsible, and he had legal rights. I stopped listenin'. Davidson couldn't a cared less, if I fell off the face o' the earth, but he wasn't gonna give that wagon boss nothin'.

"We turned off on Davidson's shortcut the next mornin'. The wagon boss told him he was a fool. Then he bent down and told me he was sorry, and that he wished me luck. Davidson was standin' there with his arm around my shoulders, like I was his favorite son. He hadn't had a kind word, or a soft hand for me, the two years I lived there, but he kept me with him, just to spite that wagon boss."

We'd been headin' out on Davidson's 'short cut!'" Vin snorted derisively when he uttered the last two words. "Hell! That was where his short cut was takin' us. It weren't three days, and we knew we was in trouble. There weren't a drop o' water the way we was headed. Do you think that stupid son of a bitch would admit he was wrong and turn around? No way! He killed his family, Ezra. And he woulda killed me too, if he hadn't dumped me outta his wagon."

"He dumped you out?!" It took a lot to shock Ezra, but the thought of a boy being left alone in the desert by the person entrusted to care for him, shocked him. It more than shocked him. It sickened him.

"Yeah, he dumped me out." Vin spoke matter of factly, as he continued his story. "The fourth day, I got up and Davidson's got his map out, and he's figurin' which of his brilliant short cuts we're gonna take that day. Well, I couldn't stand it no more, and I told him just how damned stupid he was, and that I hated him, and I'd be better off if he'd just let me go off on my own. He got this real smug look on his face, and told me I could just get the hell outta his wagon right then and there. Miz Davidson couldn't hardly believe it. She tried to tell him, it weren't right and that they couldn't just dump me off like that. He told her to shut up and get in the wagon, that they had to think about their kids. I just stood there, I knew he meant it, and to tell you the truth Ezra, I was so mad, that I didn't care."

"The stupid son of a bitch packed up and tore out of there quicker than spit. I watched till I couldn't see 'em no more and then I started walking back the way we come. After a while I got turned around and I didn't have any idea which way I was going. Musta been one of them guardian angels lookin' out for me, cause I stumbled on a water hole 'bout 6 hours later." "I didn't have nothin' to carry it in though, so I couldn't see nothin' to do but just sit there and hope some old prospector found me."

Ezra watched the memories playing across the tracker's face as he continued in his raspy drawl.

"I just sat there not knowing what else to do. I got so damned hungry I was eating bugs." Vin chuckled at the expression of distaste on Ezra's face. "They ain't so bad Ezra, you just try to make sure they don't bite ya on the way down."

"I believe I shall refrain from that particular western delicacy, Mr. Tanner." Ezra responded drily.

"Well, they ain't my first choice neither," Vin admitted, as he continued on. "I was real close to dyin' I think, when Two Feathers found me. He fed me and took me home to his village and I stayed with him from then on."

Talking had exhausted Vin and he lay back against the blankets, when he'd finished his story. Ezra was quiet as he absorbed the woeful tale he'd just been told. He watched, as Vin slipped quietly back into sleep. He swore to himself. No matter her failings, Maude had never abused him physically. She had also seen to it that he was cared for. Vin was right. He'd never known true hunger.

Vin muttered incoherently and thrashed slightly. Ezra reached over and resettled the blankets around the tracker's lean frame. He placed a hand on the tracker's cheek. The fever wasn't too bad. Ezra didn't hold out much hope, that he'd escape this without infection setting in. But, if he could keep Vin's wound fairly clean, Nathan might be able to properly attend to the sharpshooter, before the infection got too serious.

Ezra pushed a lock of hair out of the tracker's face. He was surprised at how young his friend looked, when he was asleep. He seemed far more vulnerable to the gambler now, than he ever did awake. Ezra spoke soothingly to the other man. Suprisingly enough, he had noticed that his touch and voice seemed to reassure the tracker. He always quieted. Vin was truly a remarkable man, Ezra mused quietly. He'd lived through such malice and spite, yet he'd still managed to retain faith in his fellow man.



The sun was beginning to decline in the western sky by the time the five men reached the little stream at Bonita Creek. Except for short stops that Nathan demanded they take, the group had been riding continuously since dawn. The horse's moved out eagerly when they smelled the water. The five riders didn't try to rein them in and the horse's nosed up eagerly to the water. Nathan dismounted wearily. Looking at the lined faces of the rest of the group, he sighed inwardly. Even JD was looking older than his years. Chris looked like pure hell.

Nathan hoped they finished this business soon. He closed his eyes when the thought came unbidden that Chris wouldn't recover if they didn't find the tracker alive. The two had developed a rapport that even Buck and Chris no longer shared. Vin had thrown a lifeline to Chris's beaten soul and the gunslinger had grabbed it and hung on for dear life. No, Chris wouldn't survive if Vin was lost to them.

Nathan also knew that Chris, hell the whole group would feel guilty if Ezra didn't survive this. Guilt would eat at all of them for ignoring his absence, when he failed to return on schedule. Nathan actually smiled at the thought of all five of them trying to make it up to Ezra for their lack of faith in him. Nathan had no doubt the gambler would capitalize on their guilt for months. If they found him.

Nathan finally spoke, "I think we better make camp here tonight. Stay close to the water. Sun will be down in an hour or two anyway." The other men nodded agreement. All but Chris, who was kneeling at the edge of the pond and staring at the water. Josiah exchanged a knowing glance with Nathan. Nathan motioned to Buck and JD, to leave Josiah alone with Chris.

JD reached over and took the reins of Josiah's horse. Josiah moved up next to Chris. Reaching down, he gently removed Chris's hand from the reins of his horse and handed them to Nathan. When the healer had moved off with Buck and JD, Josiah knelt next to Chris.

The big preacher spoke quietly, "Cherish your friend, keep faith in him." Chris looked up at Josiah's unexpected words. Josiah gave him a small smile. "It's from the bible. Don't give up on Vin and Ezra, Chris."

Chris jerked at Josiah's accurate assessment of his present frame of mind. He sighed inwardly. It was getting to the point where he was an open book to the men around him. When the hell had that happened, he thought to himself.

Chris raised his haunted eyes up to Josiah's face, "What if we don't find them, Josiah?"

"They're strong resourceful men Chris, especially Ezra. It'll take a lot to take one of them down."

Chris closed his eyes and almost smiled at the preacher's description of Ezra. He had overheard Buck one day describing Ezra as someone who could swindle his way into the Pearly Gates. Hell, the man would probably play poker with Saint Peter and win his way in. Chris also knew Vin had been through some tough times in his life, too. He wasn't about to fold up at the first sign of trouble or hardship. Chris knew he would have to trust in Josiah's words and the inclination of the two men they were desperately hunting to stay alive. It was just damn hard to do. The situation was out of Chris's control and he didn't like that helpless feeling.

He nodded to the big preacher to show his understanding of what Josiah was trying to tell him. Josiah clapped him on the shoulder and moved away to help the other three men set up camp. Chris reached down and splashed the cold water from the creek on his face. He wiped the water from his eyes and stood to join the other men.

Darkness had settled in around the little camp. A coyote yipped off in the distance. It's call immediately answered by another of his kind. Buck and JD had once more settled into their ongoing disagreement over nothing in particular. Chris listened halfheartedly but smiled slightly when he heard JD complaining that everybody didn't have to feel the need to constantly give him advice. It was hardest being the youngest in the group, he mused. Even when you didn't need it or want it everyone felt the need to pass on his wisdom. Vin was only a few years older than JD but seemed decades in age apart to Chris. However, it hadn't stopped Chris from becoming very protective of Vin. Almost like he was a little brother. Hell, come to think of it all these men were family to him. Even that damned cheatin' good for nothin' gambler. What he wouldn't give right now to hear Ezra expounding on his latest scheme.

Chris stood up away from the small fire. "Best get some rest. We start out at first light. I'll take the first watch."

Nathan was almost immediately on his feet, "Oh no, you don't, Chris. Somebody else will take the first watch. You are going to lie down and get some sleep." The healer's tone was fierce as he confronted Chris. He knew instinctively that Chris's 'first watch' would turn into another all night pacing session.

The mulish look that immediately crossed the blond man's face almost caused Nathan to swear out loud. Dammit, wasn't there any one of this group who had a lick of sense? He broke in before the gunslinger had a chance to open his mouth. "Listen to me, Chris. You need sleep and you need it in the worst way. Don't make me dose you. I've got some laudanum here that will put you out for the rest of the night." Nathan let the threat hang in the air between them.

"Just who's going to help you get that down my throat?" Chris glared at the healer. He wasn't really angry with Nathan. Far from it. He knew the man was concerned for him but Chris felt helpless lying in his bedroll while his friends needed him.

"I will," Buck spoke up softly from where he sat next to JD. He met Chris's angry look boldly smirking to himself at Chris's obvious frustration.

"Me, too," JD piped in. He paled when Chris turned his glare on him but refused to back down.

"Looks like you're outnumbered, Brother Larabee," Josiah said a hint of a smile playing on his lips.

Realizing it was a lost cause Chris moved to his bedroll muttering "Traitors" under his breath. Everyone heard it though. Buck just laughed.

Nathan stood up. "I'll take the first watch." He intended to see that Chris remained in that bedroll for the rest of the night.



The sound of horses and riders in the yard outside the little shed woke Vin. A shout of greeting from the house heralded the arrival of the infamous Earl. Ezra had spent the last few hours vainly trying to find a way out of the shed. Several boards were loose but Ezra would never be able to fit his body through the opening they provided. The dirt floor was hard as a rock. There would be no digging their way out either. They wouldn't be able to hide their activities from their captors, anyway.

"We've got visitors," Ezra told the prostrate man.

"I reckon we'll be getting to see Earl real soon now." Vin's gravelly voice was weak, and he struggled to push his way to a sitting position.

Ezra saw the movement from where he was studying the door frame. He moved immediately over to the hunter. "Mr. Tanner, I've expended a great deal of energy, not to mention a fine silk scarf, and my good Kentucky bourbon attempting to keep you from expiring. Please do not undermine my efforts, by unnecessary movement," he told the man exasperatedly.

"Huh?" At that moment, Vin sounded exactly like JD Dunne.

Ezra smiled a little, as he translated. "Lie still, Mr. Tanner." He noticed that Vin tended to do the exact opposite of what he was told. Is this what Nathan went through every time one of them was hurt? He rearranged the saddlebags behind the bounty hunter and eased him back until he was leaning against the wall. When he was satisfied the wounded man wasn't going to faint, and further injure himself, Ezra moved back to the door. The voices were faint and soon faded completely as the group in the yard moved into the ranch house. Ezra felt an involuntary shiver of fear run through his body. No doubt, Bob Colter was informing Earl of their presence at this very moment.

Just for once, Ezra wished he wasn't always so correct when it came to human nature. The door to the shed was flung open slamming against the wall with a thud that shook the little building. Ezra stumbled back away from the doorway squinting a little at the sunlight that lit up the small room A tall blond haired man with grey eyes and a scar running along his left cheek stood in the doorway. He was a huge man, almost as big as Tom Polk. Ezra could see the family resemblance to Bob Colter. This must be Earl, Ezra thought apprehensively moving to stand between the outlaw and Vin.

Colter pushed him aside as though he were a child. "You must be Standish.

My brother told me about you," Colter grinned evilly at Ezra. "Don't think you're gonna interfere with my happy little reunion with Tanner here." Shoving his way roughly past the southerner, Earl knelt down next to the tracker.

Vin hadn't said a word or moved since Earl had entered. He was determined not to let the man see the fear he felt inside. Vin tried to ignore Colter's presence, staring at his feet. The tracker's stubborn determination only served to amuse Colter.

Laughing, he grabbed Vin's hair and pulled his head back forcing the tracker to meet his eyes "Been a long time, Tanner. Betcha never thought you'd see me again, did ya? Well, me and the boys got some business to attend in 3 days. I'm gonna save our little party till I get back. Sorta a celebration. And if things don't go the way I want them to, I got our little reunion to make me feel better. Either way, I'm gonna teach you some tricks I picked up in prison. You're gonna love 'em. And then me and the boys are gonna have some real fun."

Flinging Vin's head away, Colter got up and turned to Ezra. He winked slyly at the gambler. "Oh yeah, you're invited to the party, too." Laughing, Colter strode out of the shed slamming the door behind him.

Ezra breathed a sigh of relief, when he realized that Earl didn't intend to immediately dispose of them. Turning to the bounty hunter, Ezra observed, "Mr. Tanner, that is beyond a doubt the most unpleasant man I've ever had the misfortune to know. Why didn't you shoot the man when you had the chance? I'm sure the bounty was 'Dead or Alive.' I realize that you are probably of the same mind as our illustrious leader, but you could have shot him in the back and gotten away with it, you know. Ezra was being facetious, but Vin took him seriously.

"Well, Chris don't ever hold with shooting a fella in the back. He's right about that most of the time, Ezra. Unless, the fella's runnin' away, but he's gonna come back tomorow and try to shoot me again. That's a different story. I don't aim to stop shootin', till I'm sure he ain't never comin' back," Vin paused and looked at the gambler with a wry grin. "I didn't plan on him comin' back again."

Ezra laughed at Vin's droll words. Somehow, he didn't think either of them would have a problem putting a bullet into Bob or Earl Colter, either one. Too bad, they didn't have a gun between them.

Ezra moved back over to the bounty hunter and settled in beside him.

"What was your mother like Mr. Tanner?" Ezra asked casually.

The tracker eyed him suspiciously and said nothing. Ezra sighed exasperatedly. Vin's experience with the Davidsons apparently wasn't something that he minded sharing. His mother however, was a much more closely held subject.

"Mr. Tanner, our hosts have neglected to feed us, and it doesn't appear, that they have given any thought to entertainment, with which we may occupy ourselves. In addition, they are planning a rather unpleasant soiree at which our attendance is mandatory. Perhaps we should endeavor to engage in some stimulating conversation, to keep our minds off of our collective misery, and to alleviate our boredom."

A small smile crossed the tracker's face as he deciphered the gambler's words. "Got nothing else to do. What'd ya wanta know?" Vin answered slowly.

"Was she pretty?" The gambler asked.

The tracker thought for a minute, before he shook his head yes. "Yeah she was, not like your ma, all fancied up, but in a real plain way. Yeah, she was pretty." Vin rooted in his pocket, and found the locket and took it out. Wincing a little at the movement, he reached over and shyly offered it to Ezra.

The gambler was more than a little surprised when Vin held out the locket. The tracker was shy by nature. His mother was a treasured memory, one he kept private. Ezra knew Vin wasn't a man who shared his private memories lightly. No, Vin's offering him the locket, was more than just a way to kill time. The tracker was letting Ezra know he trusted him. Ezra hadn't been sure Vin would ever trust him again, after what had happened in the saloon a few months back.

Ezra winced a little, at the memory of Vin coming into the saloon, and asking for a favor. . . And, of how he'd drunkenly laughed in the tracker's face. Yes, he was drunk, and he was angry at the way Big Lester had cheated him, but that didn't excuse the way he'd treated Vin. The next morning when he'd sobered up, Ezra was ashamed of himself. Vin never asked any of them for anything, and the first time he did . . . Not this time my friend, Ezra thought guiltily. This time, I'll do it right.

Ezra met the tracker's uncertain eyes, and carefully took the locket and opened it. There was a picture of a smiling young girl. She looked to be about 19 or 20, and she was holding a little boy who looked to be about 2 or 3 years old on her lap. Her dark hair curled about her shoulders softly, and Ezra would have bet a good sum of money that the eyes that held a hint of laughter were the same bright blue as Vin's. Vin was right, she was pretty.

He started to hand the locket back to the tracker, when suddenly the door was pushed open and Tom Polk stood there with a rather unappetizing looking plate of food.

Polk caught the glint of metal in Ezra's hand, and demanded abruptly. "Whatcha got there?"

"Merely a sentimental trinket." Ezra deliberately kept his tone casual, hoping the brute would just leave the dinner. Vin pushed himself up, and started to speak but changed his mind when he felt Ezra's warning hand on his shoulder.

Tom Polk didn't notice the subtle exchange between the two men, but he did notice that the locket, while not fancy was made of gold. He reached over to Ezra's hand and snatched it away. "You all ain't gonna have no use for such things where you're going anyway," Polk grinned, and handed Ezra the plate. Whistling he swung the locket back and forth as he stepped out of the room, and locked the door.

Ezra took the plate, but his eyes never left Vin's face. The tracker was breathing heavily and would have challenged Polk if Ezra hadn't stopped him. "Mr. Tanner . . . Vin . . . " Ezra began.

"Forget it Ezra!" Vin said bitterly. "It don't matter none anyway."

The hurt in his voice told Ezra that it did in fact, matter very much. "I'm sorry Vin," Ezra told the tracker sincerely.

Vin turned his face towards the wall and covered his eyes with his hand. "Just leave me be for a while, OK Ezra," he said softly.

The day stretched on endlessly for Ezra. Following the incident with the stolen locket, Vin became uncommunicative. Ezra forced himself to choke down half of the food Polk had brought them. He saved the rest for Vin. He knew that pretty soon he was going to have to get him to eat something.


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