Chris tightened his grip again when he felt Vin begin to move.
"Uhmm...wh...where...oh" Vin sighed and his shoulders slumped as he took in his surroundings.
"What's the matter, cowboy? Forget where ya were there?" Chris questioned.
"Was hopin' was just a dream. Embarrassin', ridin' like this... can ride m'own horse."
"No, Vin. You fell off your own horse....lucky you didn't hurt yourself. You stay still and we'll be back in town soon, just a little longer you gotta put up with me huggin' ya."
Chris turned his head and shared a smile with Buck over the tracker's obvious discomfort about riding double with him. As they continued on in silence, Chris wasn't sure if Vin was asleep or just quiet.
"Thought you said just a little..." Before Vin could continue, he began to cough again. He leaned forward as his right hand clutched his left side. He clung to the saddle horn with his left hand in a white-knuckled grip. When the painful spasm subsided, he tipped his head back slightly, and struggled to catch his breath. After several long moments, he lifted his head and shifted, trying to get comfortable.
Sitting in such close proximity, Chris finally appreciated how ill the younger man was. He heard the barely audible moan that had escaped Vin's lips, and the soft wheezing. For the first time, he noticed how much each fit of coughing drained Vin. He felt the slight shiver, despite the heat radiating from him. He realized that Vin's restless attempts to change position were due to a general ache throughout his body. Feeling responsible for Vin's deteriorating condition, Chris made a decision.
"Vin...tomorrow...I want you to stay in town."
"Vin," Chris tried to begin to reason. "You're sick as a dog. Don't need to be Nathan to see that. We can look for the kid, you stay in town and get well."
Taking a deep breath to speak, Vin instead began to cough as he exhaled.
"No," he gasped as he brushed away the tears that had sprung to his eyes.
"No, don't need no fussin' or nursemaidin'...I'm fine."
Chris had loosened his hold, and when Vin realized that, he took advantage of the opportunity and slide down.
"What are you doing?"
"Can ride my own horse," he drawled as he slowly walked to his own mount.
Chris's frustration about not finding the child, and Vin's illness and stubborn refusal to give in rapidly escalated to anger. An anger he later regretted taking out on the sick man. Jumping down, he stalked over to Vin and grabbed his arm to get his attention.
"Fine...you want to ride your own horse...go on...want no help...fine....take care of yourself..."
Letting go of Vin, he roughly pushed him back before he turned and angrily stomped back to his own horse.
"Buck...what's with Chris?" J.D. leaned over and urgently whispered.
"He's just upset, kid. He don't mean no harm to Vin."
Vin sadly watched Chris walk away from him before turning to climb on to his own horse. Sighing, he looked up at the saddle. At that moment, it may as well have been the highest mountain. Looking down briefly, he slowly lifted his leg to the stirrup.
"Here ya go pard, let me give ya a hand."
Turning his head to the side, he smiled gratefully to see Buck standing beside him.
"Buck, get away from him, he don't need no fussin' said so himself," Chris ordered.
Buck shot an angry glare at Chris and moved to help Vin.
"No, Buck, don't, I can do it," Vin hoarsely insisted. He did not want to see the two old friends quarreling because of him. Sighing deeply, he let out a low groan as he climbed up. Looking down, he gave Buck a small smile.
The men rode in stony silence. J.D. was shocked and Buck was furious about the way Chris had treated Vin. Josiah was trying to think of something to say to heal the rift. Nathan was still simmering over the fact that the ill man had been out on the trail all day. Ezra knew when it was best to just keep his mouth shut. Chris and Vin never looked at each other, let alone speak.
Seeing the street fires in the distance, Chris stopped and looked at his men. Vin had managed to stay on his horse with a little help. Buck had protectively positioned himself beside him, and Chris had noticed that he reached out several times when Vin swayed. With no further hesitation, the men nudged their horses forward and entered the town side by side.
+ + + + + + +
"Thank God! You're back! Where is she? Where is she?"
Lillian Spencer had broken free from Mary Travis and ran out to meet the men. Running to Vin as he stood beside his horse, she clutched the front of his shirt.
"Where is she?" she wailed.
Swallowing painfully, Vin looked at her sadly. His eyes met hers, and she instantly knew the answer.
"Ma'am, I'm sorry," he began.
"YOU BASTARD! You worthless bastard! What are you doing back without her?"
Before anyone could stop her, she reached up and angrily slapped Vin.
"Lillian, no...don't do this." Mary Travis and Gloria Potter moved to either side of Mrs. Spencer and pulled her away from the ill tracker.
Bowing his head, Vin reached up and put his fingers to the angry red hand print blooming on his cheek. Lifting his eyes, he watched the sobbing woman being led away.
"Uh...hmm." Vin turned to Chris and nodded slightly.
"Listen...'bout earlier...I'm sorry I blew up like that." Chris extended his arm to shake hands. "About tomorrow...let's wait and see how ya feel... fair enough?" Chris smiled as Vin nodded his head in agreement.
You're on your own, Vin...I ain't hauling ya outta bed tomorrow... we'll leave without your sorry ass.
Glancing at the others, and winking at Nathan, he put his hand to Vin's back and started to guide him away.
"Now what do ya say boys? Hot bath, dry clothes, decent meal and then a warm bed?"
Sunlight shimmered in the puddles as another day dawned in the town. The air was crisp and a brisk breeze made it seem colder.
Nathan stood at his cupboard, filling his saddlebags with supplies. He hesitated momentarily without turning when the door opened slowly.
Nathan glanced over his shoulder and nodded his head.
"Yeah, just getting some things together." Nathan crossed the room, put the saddlebag on the table and looked at Chris. "Everyone else?"
"Buck and J.D. are getting the horses. Ezra's gonna get some supplies...weather stays clear, we can make camp." Chris cleared his throat before continuing. Sitting down as he took off his hat, he sighed and looked around the small room. "Haven't seen Josiah, thought maybe you had."
"Nope." Nathan looked at Chris with raised eyebrows. "Well?"
"Vin. You didn't mention Vin. Refused to let me look at him last night. You got him propped up on his horse some place, ready to go?"
Chris stood quickly and stalked across the floor to Nathan.
"Look, I already told ya, you were right. Never shoulda dragged him outta here---but I thought we had the best chance of finding the girl with his help. It was a waste of time and he ended up sicker. I can't change that. You heard me tell him to stay behind today.
Nathan walked over to the window and let out a short snort as he looked outside.
"I also heard you tell him to wait and see how he's feeling today."
Chris looked over Nathan's shoulder, and directing his gaze to the street below, let out a soft sigh. The subject of their discussion was sitting on his horse in front of the saloon, apparently waiting for the others.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah walked up, and resting one hand on Vin's horse, reached up and shook hands with the younger man.
"How you feelin' this morning?"
"Fi..." Vin stopped, and closing his eyes,painfully cleared his throat. "Fine."
Josiah arched an eyebrow and cocked his head as he looked up at the tracker. While still holding Vin's horse, he put his hand on his hip and looked around before saying anything.
"I'd have to disagree with you there, brother." He looked at Vin appraisingly. "Your hand felt pretty warm when I shook it."
"I'm fine Josiah, it's just a cold."
Josiah stared at Vin without saying anything. The uneasy silence was broken when Vin began coughing. Taking a deep breath, Vin cleared his throat and sneezed.
"Once we find the girl, I'll have plenty of time to get well."
Josiah looked down at his own boots, and squinting up at Vin, he frowned.
"Josiah, she's just a little girl, we need to find her."
Vin's voice was hoarse and painful for Josiah to hear.
"Vin, it doesn't have to be you. We can look for her. You spent hours looking yesterday, and you couldn't turn up a trace," Josiah attempted to reason.
Ezra joined the two, and stood silently, listening to the exchange.
"I must've missed somethin'," Vin insisted.
Josiah shook his head in resignation.
"You know Nathan's gonna be after ya, and after last night, Chris ain't gonna be easy on ya?" Josiah reminded the ill man.
"Yep, and I don't need no one fussin' 'bout me..."
"Vin Tanner! Where is your coat?"
"Good Lord, who'd have thought that wizened, old crone could yell so loudly?" Ezra smiled as he spoke through clenched teeth.
The three men stopped where they were and watched the small woman marching towards them.
"I asked you a question, boy."
"Aw, Miss Nettie...it's still too wet from last night, I'll be fine."
"That's what I thought. Well, you'll catch your death from cold in your shirt sleeves like that...that is, if you haven't already. Do you have your longjohns on?" She frowned as she looked up at the young man.
Ezra turned his head away and chuckled as a slow blush spread across Vin's cheeks.
"Come down off that horse while I'm talking to you," Nettie ordered.
With a deep sigh and a shake of his head, Vin climbed down.
"Here, put this on."
Vin looked down at the object she thrust at him. In her outstretched hand, was a soft, brown leather coat with fringe across the shoulders.
"Miss Nettie, I...I can't...can't accept that," Vin stammered.
"Nonsense. You can and you will. Here. Put it on."
Tugging at the sleeves as she walked around him and pulling the coat closed, she looked Vin up and down appraisingly.
"There. I knew it. Perfect fit."
Vin turned his head and covered his mouth as he began to cough again. As he held his horse for support, several long minutes passed before he regained control of his breathing. With a deep sigh, he turned back to the older woman.
"That coat used to belong to someone I knew...someone a lot like you...it's yours now."
"But, I can't..."
"I said, it's yours, " the determined woman interrupted.
"Thanks, Miss Nettie." Vin bowed his head and gave her a small smile as he wearily climbed back up on his saddle.
"You take care of yourself out there. Find that child and come back home and get well." Nettie pointed a finger up at Vin as she scowled at him in the bright sunlight.
Josiah smiled at the obviously uncomfortable young man.
Well, Vin... a little fussing's good for you...getting fussed over now, whether you like it or not.
Two days. Two days and two cold nights. The seven had continued their futile search for Amanda Spencer. There was no trace. No trace of her. No trace that she had wandered off, or that she had been taken. Chris sat staring at Vin while he nursed a cup of coffee. The tracker was asleep and had not stirred as the others began breaking up camp. Vin had grown increasingly irritable, and his relations with the others had become strained. He was no worse, but he was no better either, and his steadfast refusal to give in to his illness had taken a toll. Chris frowned while taking note of the pale features and dark circles under Vin's eyes.
Chris glanced up without answering as Josiah sat down.
"It's time to head back, Josiah."
Josiah followed Chris's line of vision and saw that he was intently watching the tracker sleep.
"You know, it's not his nature to give up," Josiah nodded toward Vin as he took a sip of his own coffee.
"I know." Chris sighed and closed his eyes while pinching the bridge of his nose. "Josiah, we can't keep going. He can't keep going like this. He's not getting any better, we're all exhausted. Nothing. Not a scrap, not a sign, nothing. We've found nothing at all. Don't know where else to look. What I do know is, I gotta get him back to town."
"I agree with you, brother. Now you need to convince him."
Josiah smiled as he stood and spilled the remainder of his coffee on the fire before walking away.
"Vin. Hey, Vin, wake up."
Chris nudged Vin with the toe of his boot. When Vin did not move, Chris leaned down and shook his shoulder roughly.
"Come on, you're holding everyone up. We're waiting on you."
For a moment, Chris felt guilty that no food or coffee had been saved for Vin before camp was broken up. He felt guilty, but only for a moment. He wanted Vin uncomfortable. Uncomfortable and miserable enough to agree to head back to town.
When he saw there was no coffee, Vin opened his canteen and slowly raised it to his mouth. Closing his eyes as he swallowed, he winced. Sensing that he was being watched, he opened his eyes and saw Chris staring at him. His head was throbbing and every bone in his body ached. Sighing tiredly, he turned away and began slowly rolling his bedroll. Chris or any one of the others could have done it much faster, but Chris was as stubborn as Vin. He'd said he wanted no fussing and he wasn't getting any.
Vin put his hand up on his saddle and sagged against his horse, his breathing ragged. Leaning his head against the side of his saddle, he began to cough. When the cough finally subsided, Vin slowly swung up on to his saddle. Hanging on to the reins, he wheezed as he struggled to catch his breath.
Still short of breath, Vin only nodded his head.
Vin opened his mouth to respond, but instead sneezed. He had a pounding headache and squinting in the bright sunlight, he turned his horse away.
Buck moved to intervene, he was upset watching Chris's treatment of Vin. Before he could say anything, Ezra touched his arm and shook his head.
Taking the lead, Vin rode ahead of the others. Nudging his horse, Chris moved to catch up with him.
Never taking his eyes off the ground, Vin didn't acknowledge him.
"Vin, we're heading back."
"I'm fine," Vin insisted while staring intently at the dirt.
"I know you're fine. It's J.D. He's beginning to feel poorly again. We need to head back for him."
Chris watched quietly as Vin frowned and turned to look back at J.D.
Chris smiled triumphantly. Vin was sick enough that the ruse had worked. He wouldn't take care of himself, but appeal to his sense of concern for any one of the others and he would do anything.
"Vin, we need to call off the search. It's been three days with no clue at all, we can't keep this up. None of the others will give up as long as you keep looking."
Chris watched Vin slump in the saddle as he slowly nodded his head.
"Don't go blaming yourself. You done the best you could. Can't ask for more than that. There was no trace, nothing you or anyone else could find."
"Chris, she's just a little girl."
Vin looked at Chris with hauntingly sad blue eyes.
"I know." Chris cleared his throat and reached across to grasp the younger man's arm. "I know. When we get back to town I want you to go with Nathan. I'll go talk to Mrs. Spencer."
Chris felt a sad heaviness in his chest as he watched Vin slowly nod his head, with none of the customary arguing.
The sun was starting to set as the seven men rode into town. The streets were full of people, and it seemed life had returned to normal in their absence. Judging by the number of men milling about, they realized that they had been the last ones still searching.
Stopping in front of the saloon, Chris climbed down. Mary Travis walked up to Chris, and looked at him hopefully. Looking down, he shook his head and began to walk slowly away with her.
"Where is she?"
"Casey's sitting with her at my place. Oh, God, Chris, what are you going to say?" She sagged against him as he wrapped his arm across her shoulder.
Chris turned his head and looked back at the others as they began to get off their horses.
"Vin, you go with Nathan. Josiah?"
"I'm with you Chris. Let's go."
+ + + + + + +
The two stunned men stood against the wall, silently staring at the grief stricken woman. Her wails were filling the small room and could be heard out on the street.
Breaking away from from Mary's arms, she ran from the room and out the door. Running outside, she searched the street, and seeing Vin, ran in his direction.
Stumbling backwards as she caught him off guard, he tripped and fell with her on top of him.
"You bastard!" She fiercely began beating Vin's already sore chest as he scrambled to get out from under her.
"I hate you! I hate you! You bastard! You were supposed to find her! You were supposed to bring her back! I hate you!"
Buck pulled the enraged woman off the stunned man as she began kicking and clawing. Chris ran up as Nathan was helping Vin to his feet. Gasping, Vin stood slowly. Leaning forward, he rested his hands on his knees as he tried to catch his breath. Buck stood to the side, holding the still struggling woman.
"Buck, take her back to Mary's...stay there with her."
"Sure thing, pard."
Chris watched Buck leave with the upset woman before turning back to Vin.
"She's right, Chris. Should've found her," Vin interrupted.
Damn it! She's got him blaming himself!
"Chris, go give Buck a hand and see about her, Vin and I are going to the clinic," Nathan offered.
As Vin started to walk away, Chris reached out and stopped him.
"Vin, you did all you could, everyone knows that. Go with Nathan and get some rest...I'll be along shortly and we'll talk then."
As he watched Vin walk away without answering, Chris wondered if Vin believed him.
A chill descended on the town with the setting sun and the return of the seven men. As the sky grew darker, a brisk wind threatened to extinguish the street fires. Shuddering as he walked past the eerie shadows cast by the dancing flames, J.D. ducked into the saloon.
Pausing momentarily to adjust to the sudden brightness, he searched the room for any sign of the other six.
"Hey, Ezra." Pulling out a chair, J.D. swung his leg over the back and sat down. Reaching for the bottle on the table, and grabbing a glass, he helped himself to Ezra's whiskey.
"By all means, Mr. Dunne, help yourself."
Oblivious to the sarcasm, J.D. smiled.
Frowning, Ezra closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. With a sigh, he raised his glass and took a sip.
J.D. twisted in his chair and looked around the saloon.
"Where's everyone? Vin still at Nathan's?"
"Well, I believe," Ezra pursed his lips as he began lazily shuffling his deck of cards, "that Mr. Larabee is still with Mrs. Spencer." Ezra slowly began laying the cards out in a game of solitaire. "I assume Mr. Wilmington is still with him, hopefully keeping a firm hold on Mrs. Spencer."
"She was sure upset with Vin." J.D. looked in his glass and swirled the contents without looking up. "I just don't get it Ez."
Ezra raised his eyebrows as he looked at J.D. questioningly.
"I mean, I just don't get it. Why couldn't Vin find the girl? He's the best tracker in the territory, you'd think he'd have come back with her." J.D. finished toying with his glass and looked up at Ezra.
Without answering, Ezra gathered the cards and slowly resumed shuffling.
"Mr. Dunne, I believe Vin is owed an apology."
"For what? From who?"
Laying the cards down on the table, Ezra leaned back in his chair and rested his chin on his hand.
"What do you mean when you call him the best tracker in the territory? How does one become acknowledged as that? More importantly, how does one live up to that?"
"He is the best," J.D. insisted as he leaned forward.
"J.D., I will acknowledge that Mr. Tanner is far more talented at tracking than any one of us. In fact, he is an extremely skilled tracker. A talent of his that we have all taken advantage of on more than one occasion, much to our benefit, but he is only a man. He is not the hero of one of your dime store novels. He is only one man with weaknesses and faults, much like the rest of us. He is not some Greek god of mythology, nor a knight in shining armor who will rectify all wrongs by his mere arrival. Mrs. Spencer was given false hope, and she reacted in a perfectly normal fashion to his failure."
Standing abruptly, J.D. knocked his chair over backwards.
"How can you say those things, Ezra? Thought you were his friend, he's never done nothin' to you."
J.D. halted his outburst when he felt a heavy hand on his shoulder.
"He's right son. We all knew that she placed all her hope in Vin. None of us tried to prepare her for an unhappy ending."
J.D. whirled around to face Josiah and Buck, their faces mirror images of sorrow.
"Josiah, did you hear all that he said about Vin?" J.D. pointed a finger accusingly in the gambler's direction.
With heavy sighs, Josiah and Buck took seats, each with a mug of beer.
"Mr. Dunne, I was merely pointing out that Mr. Tanner had unreasonable expectations placed on him. Expectations which apparently had Mrs. Spencer fully expecting that he would attain a favorable outcome to the tragedy she's suffering."
J.D. sat down, and with slumped shoulders stared at the table.
"I don't care. He is the best."
"Listen kid, we know that. Hell, we all think he is. That isn't what Ezra's saying." Buck looked up and stared at Ezra pointedly.
"J.D., Vin is sick. Perhaps we asked too much of him," Josiah leaned forward as he attempted to explain.
J.D. continued to sit, disbelieving, shaking his head.
"Mr. Dunne, you, yourself were sick recently. How much did you feel up to doing? Were you able to do anything with your usual ability? And yet, Vin was hauled out of his sick bed, thrown on a horse and told to find the girl."
Hearing Ezra's words, Buck dropped his head in guilt, thinking about his role in the events.
"But he was okay."
"No, J.D., he wasn't.... He didn't belong out there and we had no business getting him involved. You know once he gets something in his head, he don't give up." Buck fought to control his rising frustration.
"My sentiments exactly, Mr. Wilmington. Why, if you recall, he was prepared to climb down into the Spencer well to search for the girl until you so graciously volunteered me."
Buck chuckled at the memory of the incident and shook his head as he slid down in his chair.
Josiah leaned back in his chair and raised the glass of beer to his lips, listening to the banter of his friends.
"Well, this whole situation is frustrating as well as heartbreaking."
Sadly nodding in agreement with Josiah, Buck raised his own glass. Josiah looked at each of the men as he continued, "I think we all expected Vin to ride out, find the girl, and be back in his own bed by nightfall. But he didn't. Why? Was it because he's ill, and perhaps missed something? Or did this child leave no trail to follow? Did she wander off or was she taken? And most importantly, is the search over because Chris says it is, or will it continue because Vin can't let it go?"
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