The excited woman ran happily into the street with outstretched arms as the smiling trio returned.
"Oh, Billy! I was so worried..."
Chris smiled as he watched Mary clutching Billy in a tight embrace. Mary released Billy and looked up at Chris.
"Hey, hey...what's this? You're crying?" Chris leaned down and lifted Mary's chin.
"I was...was so afraid...I thought..." she stammered.
Gently patting her back, Chris pulled her closer as the others looked on. After a few moments, J.D. cleared his throat.
"Uh...Chris? Should we go catch up with Buck and the others and find Vin?"
Pulling away from Chris, Mary silently mouthed "Thank you," and backed away from the men. With a sigh, Chris noted that the others had not yet returned as he watched Mary walk away.
"Yeah, but first let's feed the horses and get a bite to eat."
Mary stopped in the street and slowly turned again to face the men. Letting go of Billy's hand, she walked back to the men, the anger evident on her face.
"Mr. Larabee," she began icily. Ezra and J.D. looked at each other questioningly at the sudden change in her tone.
"Billy just told me that Vin found him...yesterday."
Chris ran his hand through his hair and let out a frustrated sigh.
"Yeah, I know...he kept saying that on the way back...he must be mixed up...there was no sign of Vin when we got there."
"Am I to understand that Vin found him yesterday, and then left him alone overnight, alone in the rain? Where is he? He has some explaining to do." Her eyes flashed in anger as her voiced raised.
"Now Mary, I'm sure there's a good explanation, Vin wouldn't do that."
"There's no 'good' explanation for leaving a lost, little boy alone and afraid," Mary harshly interrupted. "The judge will be here on tomorrow's stage, I'm sure he'll want to hear what Vin has to say for himself." Without giving Chris a chance to respond, Mary turned on her heel and angrily marched off.
"J.D., you and Ezra meet me back here in an hour, we'll go find Vin then."
+ + + + + + +
Frowning, J.D. stood up, and pulling off his hat, scratched his head. His brow furrowed as he watched the three riders slowly enter the town.
"Chris..." he called into the sheriff's office as he jumped down to the street. "Hey! Chris!"
Four horses. Three riders.
One riderless horse.
Without waiting, J.D. ran out to meet the returning men.
"Hey, where's Vin?" he asked breathlessly.
"J.D..." Buck choked.
J.D. looked up at Buck and his heart dropped when he saw the grief-stricken expression.
"NO..." J.D. shook his head and backed away, refusing to hear what had to be said.
"J.D....son." Josiah climbed down and put his arm around the younger man's shoulder.
"NO" J.D. began to hyperventilate.
No one had noticed Chris's quiet arrival. Without a word, he walked to Vin's horse. With one hand on the animal's neck, he placed the other on Vin's saddle. Closing his eyes, he lowered his head. Leaning his forehead against the saddle, he let out a long, audible sigh.
"Chris..." Buck gently placed his hand on Chris's back.
"Up on Sutter's Ridge," Nathan sadly answered.
"Stubborn son of a bitch," Chris stated through clenched teeth, his eyes brimming. Pulling Vin's coat into his arms, he closed his eyes and turned away from the others as the hot tears escaped.
"Chris," Josiah stepped forward and placed a trembling hand on Chris's shoulder.
Pushing the hand off, Chris walked away from the others. Too stunned to speak, the five men watched their leader, knowing they had no words of comfort to offer.
"Shouldn't...shouldn't someone go with him?" J.D. stammered with a heavy heart.
"No...no...leave him alone," Buck insisted, his voice cracking. Turning his back to J.D., he slammed his hand against a post.
"Shit...damn it all to hell...shit," he cursed. His shoulders slumped and he pulled his hand up to his chest and began rubbing it. Shuddering, he sniffed and dragged his hand under his nose.
"Not now J.D.," Buck gasped.
Putting an arm across Buck's shoulder, J.D. firmly pulled him away from the post.
"Buck, come on, let's go to the saloon."
Nathan and Josiah looked at each other, unable to conceal their astonishment. Running his hand through his hair, Josiah shook his head. He couldn't believe he'd just witnessed J.D. leading Buck away, offering words of comfort.
"Well, it just goes to show, you never know about people," Nathan uttered.
"No brother," Josiah answered sadly, "you never do." Turning, he walked towards his church to pray for the tortured soul of his lost young friend.
Consciousness returned painfully as Vin slowly remembered his situation. Holding his breath, Vin turned his head and listened. Alone Licking his lips, he swallowed slowly and tried to take a deep breath, only to be rewarded with a renewed bout of painful coughing. His chest heaved as he struggled to catch his breath, causing him to strain against the bonds on his limbs. He let out a low moan as pain flared through his left shoulder and arm. Sighing, he sank back on to the mattress. Oh God, please help me...please make Chris let me go. Catching his breath, he held it for a moment as he heard the door open.
+ + + + + + +
"Mite early for whiskey, isn't it Ezra?"
Josiah pulled out a chair and sat beside the gambler.
"Perhaps it is, Mr. Sanchez, perhaps it is...but today, I say 'the hell with it.'"
Josiah looked at Ezra thoughtfully and with a nod of his head, didn't respond as he reached for the bottle. The gambler was restless and his nimble fingers fumbled as he repeatedly shuffled the well-worn cards.
"How is Mr. Larabee faring this morning?"
Josiah cleared his throat and wagging his finger, indicated to Inez that he wanted coffee.
"Don't know. He's sitting over at the jail now, waiting for the stage and Mr. Spencer. He seems to be in shock, hasn't said much of anything. Who'd think that Vin of all people.." Josiah's voice trailed off as Nathan joined them.
"Josiah, I just got stopped by some townsfolk. They want a memorial service of some kind."
Ezra arched his eyebrows questioningly, although he was not surprised to hear that people were moved by Vin's loss.
"I'm worried 'bout Chris too...ain't said hardly a damn word and folks been in an' outta the jail all mornin' tellin' him they're sorry."
Just then, Ezra lost the cards and they flew across the table.
"Damn," he softly cursed. Leaning his elbow on the arm of the chair, he covered his eyes with his hand.
After a few moments of strained silence, Josiah reached over and placed his hand on the younger man's arm.
"It's okay, Ezra," he consoled.
"'It's not that, it's just...just...just that the son of a bitch still owes me money from the last time we played cards," he choked.
Unable to control themselves, Nathan and Josiah burst out laughing at Ezra's poor attempt to hide his real sorrow.
+ + + + + + +
Walking slowly, a broad grin spread across Buck's face as he neared the corner. It had all just been a bad dream. That was definitely the tortured strains of Vin's harmonica he was hearing. As he got closer to the grating sound, his heart dropped. It was Chris. Chris was playing Vin's harmonica. Taking a deep breath, Buck closed his eyes and attempted to compose himself. Opening his eyes, he shook his head and started walking again.
"Mornin'," he muttered as he tiredly sat down.
Pausing briefly, Chris took the harmonica from his mouth and looked sideways at Buck.
"Y'okay there, Bucklin'?"
Shit, Chris what are ya calling me that for? Vin does when he's teasin', but I ain't never heard you call me that...
Clearing his throat, Buck squinted up at the sky.
"Gotta hell of a headache..." Buck smacked his lips. "Feel like I got cotton stuffed in my mouth."
"Yeah, well, whiskey'll do it to ya. Don't make things any better in the mornin' either."
Chuckling softly as he shook his head, Chris resumed blowing into the harmonica.
With a loud groan, Buck closed his eyes and slid down in the chair. He began to slowly massage his temples.
Pulling the harmonica away from his mouth, Chris turned it in his hand while looking at it thoughtfully.
"You know, sometimes, I used ta think, he blew in this thing to rile me."
"He did," Buck grunted in agreement without opening his eyes. "Now I think you are." Buck scowled at Chris.
With a wry grin, Chris cleared his throat.
"He always had a way...had a way of seeing past a person to the good...you could always trust his instincts...and when he thought he was right, there was no backing down."
Chris sighed and leaned back in the chair. Holding the harmonica loosely in his hands, it rested on his stomach.
"Oh, God, I miss him. Woke up this mornin', and for a moment I almost forgot. Why? Why did he do it?"
Without a word, Buck reached out and clasped Chris's arm.
"Hey!" Buck looked at J.D., the annoyance clearly evident on his face.
Oh, lord, J.D. go away...not now.
"Hey, I was talkin' ta Billy," J.D. began breathlessly.
Ignoring J.D., Chris sat up straighter as he saw the stage slowly enter the town.
"And he said Vin was wet..."
Without acknowledging J.D., Chris slowly stood and began to stiffly walk toward the stage.
"Chris, Vin was WET when Billy saw him," J.D. insisted.
"J.D., not now...and leave Billy alone," Buck admonished as he joined Chris.
J.D. stood, staring at the two men, disbelief evident on his face. Why won't they listen?
+ + + + + + +
Vin gasped when his hair was savagely yanked. Gagging, he tried not to swallow the vile tasting liquid that was being poured into his mouth. Clamping his mouth shut, he shook his head vigorously, causing the fluid to spill on him. A stinging slap on his cheek didn't persuade him to open his mouth. He felt fingers on each side of his mouth, squeezing, trying to force his mouth open. He continued to struggle when his nostrils were suddenly pinched shut.
Finally, unable to resist any longer, his mouth flew open and he gasped for air. His body jerked in surprise when a thumb was suddenly thrust into his mouth, painfully forcing it to open wider as the bitter tea was again poured in. He began to gag and choke, and was suddenly backhanded, but the thumb remained.
Vin had all he was going to take. With a low growl, he bit down. He ground down harder as his face was slapped again and again. Fighting the urge to gag, he refused to let go, despite the taste of blood filling his mouth. A sharp blow landed on his injured leg, and his mouth opened when an anguished cry escaped. His body spent, he lay with his chest heaving, trying to catch his breath. It took him a moment to hear the shrieking.
"LOOK WHAT YOU DID!"
What? Who?...Where's Chris?
The air was driven from him by an angry, hard blow to his abdomen. The blindfold was roughly pulled off, and his eyes flew open.
Blinking rapidly, Vin was unable to focus, everything was blurry, the room was spinning. His eyes crossed as he tried to focus on the bloody thumb thrust in his face.
"LOOK WHAT YOU DID!"
Closing his eyes, Vin turned his head away. His mind was reeling, his stomach churning. His eyes flew open when he felt himself being pulled up by his hair. Searing pain shot through his shoulder as he began to see spots before his eyes.
"Mrs. Spencer..." Blinking slowly, Vin frowned as he winced and licked his lips. "I...I...please..." He swallowed and began to wheeze and let out a hoarse cough. "Please...I...I..." With a sigh, his eyes rolled back and he slipped once again into the black void of unconsciousness.
Ezra looked up and frowned as J.D. paused just inside the door. His eyebrows raised inquiringly when J.D. purposely strode to the bar without stopping. Josiah let out a long, tired sigh and cleared his throat.
"J.D., son, why don't you come on over and join us?"
J.D. looked briefly over his shoulder, the tensing of his jaw betraying his deep frustration. Turning back to the bar, he lifted his mug.
"J.D., come on now, it ain't good ta stay by yourself over there, stewin'," Nathan coaxed.
"I said, 'NO'," J.D. took a large gulp of beer. "I ain't gonna sit around with ya, talkin' 'bout how great Vin was and how much yer gonna miss him."
"Vin was a good man," Josiah began.
"NO!" Beer flew up from the top of the mug as J.D. angrily slammed it down on the bar. The air hung heavy as the patrons in the saloon stared at J.D. in shocked silence. Lowering his head, J.D. let out a long, audible breath as he stood clenching and unclenching his hands, his face paled with anger. He stiffened when he felt a hand rest gently on his back.
"J.D., come on, come sit with us."
Nodding wordlessly, J.D. allowed himself to be led to the table with the others. Mixed feelings surged through him, he refused to accept that Vin was dead.
"J.D., Vin couldn't have survived that fall..." Nathan began gently.
"No," J.D. interrupted, shaking his head vehemently. "I talked ta Billy, he said Vin was wet. Billy saw Vin after he fell, he's out there someplace, hurt," J.D. insisted.
Leaning forward, Josiah rested his elbows on the table and cleared his throat. Sighing, he gave a resigned shrug as he clasped his hands together and stared at them.
"J.D." His voice broke with huskiness, tears welled in his eyes as he stood abruptly and left the table.
"J.D..." Nathan patiently continued. "You can't keep this up. You've gotta let it go...accept that Vin's gone."
"Nathan, Vin wouldn't do that...he wouldn't do anything to hurt himself."
Nathan let out a long, audible breath as he leaned back in the chair. Shaking his head, he looked up at the ceiling as he bit his lower lip.
"J.D...you don't understand...there's no way Vin coulda survived that fall."
"But Vin did...he isn't dead," J.D. insisted firmly as he stood up and began to leave.
"Now hold on," Nathan reached out and grabbed J.D.'s arm. "Where are you goin' off to?"
"I'm not stayin' here while Vin's out there sick, and probably hurt. I'm gonna go find Vin myself and bring him home." With a last swallow of beer, J.D. placed the mug on the table and started to leave.
"No, Ezra, let him go...he's too young to understand."
Ezra had sat quietly shuffling his cards throughout the entire exchange. Placing the cards on the table, he stood and grabbed his hat. Placing it on his head, he touched the brim with two fingers and looked at Nathan and Josiah as he turned to leave.
"Gentlemen, if you'll excuse me."
+ + + + + + +
"Mr. Dunne, hold on."
"No, Ezra," J.D. ground out as he checked his saddle. "I don't want to hear it. I'm going to Rio Plata to look for Vin."
"Mr. Dunne...I believe you...I wish to accompany you."
J.D. stopped and turned to stare at Ezra with his mouth open.
"I agree with you...Mr. Tanner...Vin...would never inflict bodily harm on himself. Of that I am fairly certain. He values his good name too much. As far as Billy saying that he was wet, well Rio Plata is down current from Sutter's Ridge...it makes perfect sense to me."
J.D. continued to stare at Ezra, speechless and stunned that one of the others finally agreed with him.
"Wh...why? Why do you believe me?" he stammered.
"Because it makes sense to me, Mr. Dunne. Now, shall we leave?"
With a small nod, J.D. grinned as he climbed on to his horse. "Thanks Ezra. Let's go bring Vin home."
+ + + + + + +
Stepping outside, Nathan and Josiah watched Ezra and J.D. as they mounted their horses. Looking up, Nathan shielded his eyes from the sun and squinted.
"Now, where are you two headed? The stage just came in. We might be needed."
Looking down the street at Buck and Chris as they stood talking, J.D. let out a short snort and turned away. Without a word, he tapped the sides of his horse and began to ride away. Glancing down, Ezra touched the brim of his hat.
"Gentlemen, Rio Plata."
Tightening the hold on his reins, he nudged his horse and rode off quickly to catch up with J.D.
Chris scowled at Buck. His mouth was tight and grim as he faced the other man. Letting out a long sigh, he put his hands on his hips.
"You don't have ta do this."
Pulling his hat off, Chris lowered his head and stared at the hard packed ground. With a long sigh, he massaged the back of his neck.
"No, Buck. I do," he said quietly.
Taking a step closer, Buck clasped Chris's shoulder.
"Chris, I can talk to Mr. Spencer...Josiah's over there, let him do it."
Looking up, Chris watched Nathan and Josiah approach and shook his head.
"No. I'll do it. Then we'll...we'll go look for Vin...and give him...give him a decent burial." His voice was distant, barely above a husky whisper as he stared vacantly over Buck's shoulder.
When Nathan and Josiah joined them, the four men slowly made their way to the passengers climbing from the stage. If either Buck or Chris noticed the absence of the two younger men, neither mentioned it.
+ + + + + + +
Chris paused and looked at Judge Travis's outstretched hand before shaking it.
Judge Travis leaned forward and lowered his voice.
"Mary wired me. That is Mr. Spencer," he turned indicating the man reaching up for his bags, "shall we go into the newspaper office?"
Nodding slightly, Chris led Buck and the others inside.
Mary stood quickly and walked around to the front of her desk as the men entered. Her eyes shifted from one person to the other as she stood anxiously twisting her hands. Clearing his throat, Chris removed his hat and began turning it in his hand.
"Chris," Mary took a tentative step forward. "I..."
Before she could continue, the door opened and Judge Travis and Robert Spencer entered.
"Robert, this is my daughter-in-law, Mary."
Tipping his head as he smiled, Robert Spencer greeted Mary.
"And this is Chris Larabee, he and the others help keep the peace in the town."
As he shook Chris's hand, he looked briefly at the grim-faced men around him. A momentary look of puzzlement crossed his face.
"Robert, perhaps you should sit down."
Resting his hand lightly on Spencer's back, Judge Travis indicated a nearby chair. As Mr. Spencer sat down, his eyebrows raised inquiringly. The room grew unbearingly silent as all eyes turned to Chris, waiting for him to begin.
Looking down at his hat, Chris let out a long, defeated sigh. he closed his eyes as memories of the past week flooded his mind. When he opened his eyes, he saw Robert Spencer looking at him expectantly. Crouching in front of the older man, Chris dragged his hand through his hair.
"Mr. Spencer...I..I don't know any easy way to say this. I...I'm sorry." Chris stopped and took a deep breath. "It's your...your daughter Amanda, sir. She's missing and we..we believe dead."
Robert Spencer stood abruptly, his face pale.
"Gentlemen," his tone was relatively cool in spite of his anger. "If this is some sort of joke, I don't find it amusing."
"Robert..." Judge Travis took a step forward, only to be halted when Mr. Spencer raised his hand.
"No. My daughter Amanda disappeared and has been presumed dead for fifteen years."
As Chris stood quickly,the color drained from his face. He took a quick breath of utter astonishment as his mind registered Mr. Spencer's words. Lunging forward, he grabbed Robert Spencer by the lapels of his coat. Cold fury blazed in his green eyes. He could hear Buck muttering behind him.
"I knew it...that boy could follow a wood tick on a solid rock...makes sense now..."
NO! Vin died for nothing!
"Chris!" Nathan yelled out as he and Josiah pulled him off the older man.
"Mr. Spencer," Judge Travis stepped forward, his tone cold and stern, "these men and others in this town have spent a great deal of time and energy looking for your daughter. The daughter that your wife led them to believe only just now disappeared."
Sinking into a chair, Mr. Spencer covered his face with his hand.
"Oh, dear God, forgive me...I thought she was better."
The silence in the room became deafening as the occupants realized that they had been searching for a chid who had died fifteen years ago.
"My...my wife...where is she?"
Ignoring the man, Chris began pacing the room, cursing under his breath.
"Mr. Spencer, your wife is at your home. We can take you there," Josiah calmly stated.
+ + + + + + +
"Robbie, come on now, wake up...wake up for momma."
Vin resisted opening his his eyes. Turning his head away, he tried to ignore the insistent voice.
His eyes flew open and he gasped and arched his back when he felt a sudden, searing pain in his right leg.
Starting to feel dizzy as he lay panting, Vin closed his eyes, Please God, help me and started to drift off.
Vin's eyes opened wide and his body stiffened as he took in a sharp breath and held it when another vicious blow struck his leg. "Oh, no...please..." he choked out as he squeezed his eyes shut. "Chris...please...I'm sorry...please help me." A stinging slap to his face forced his eyes open again.
"Not Robbie," he slurred as he fought to swallow the bile rising in his throat.
Furious, Lillian grabbed him by the hair and pulled him as far upright as the bindings on his wrists allowed.
"Ahhhhhh......" The pain in his already injured shoulder intensified.
"LOOK AT ME!"
Forcing his eyes open, Vin glared at the mad woman, his vision blurred by pain and unshed tears.
"Drink this," she ordered as she thrust a cup to Vin's mouth and began forcing him to take it.
Taking the contents in his mouth, he didn't swallow. Smiling triumphantly, Lillian placed the empty cup on the bedside table and turned to face Vin in time to be hit in the face by the graceful arc of the fluid as Vin spit it out. Screaming, she grabbed a board and began beating Vin's leg, oblivious to the blood as it splattered the wall and soaked the bed. Grunting with each blow, she continued long after he lost consciousness.
The large house was dark, cool and obviously empty. As the four peacekeepers slowly filed into the room, they became acutely aware that the house was vacant. The loud ticking of the mantel clock shattered the silence. Thrusting his hands on his hips, Chris began impatiently pacing the room. Great, now we'll have ta look for his missin' wife. Stopping abruptly, he looked up and noticed the large portrait over the fireplace.
"Vin," he whispered. He jumped slightly when he felt a hand on his shoulder.
"J.D. told me about the picture...that's their son, Robbie...said he looked an awful lot like a bit younger Vin."
"Yeah..." Chris nodded his head absently, barely hearing Buck's words as he felt a lump in his throat.
"That's my son, Robert."
Chris turned to see Robert Spencer,Sr. standing beside him. He looked back up, transfixed by the smiling blue eyes.
"He was seventeen then, it was painted just before he died."
"He's dead? How...how long?"
"That'd make him...Buck, how old is Vin?"
"Dunno, 'bout twenty-four, twenty-five, I'd guess."
Vin...it can't be...is that you? Chris's mind was spinning, trying to understand why Robert Spencer would pretend to be Vin Tanner.
"He...he committed suicide seven years ago."
The tension in the room was thick as it grew sickeningly silent. All the men were staring at Robert, in shock.
Chris turned on the older man, his eyes blazing, his nostrils flaring.
"He...he..jumped...jumped to his death...all he left was a note that said 'sorry'," the grief stricken man stammered as he relived painful memories.
"Shit!" Buck turned and walked away, dragging both hands through his hair.
Chris stood, staring in disbelief. His only movement was the clenching and unclenching of the muscles in his jaw. Blinking slowly, he began looking around the room as realization came to him. A look of concern spread on his face.
"Where's J.D. and Ezra?"
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