It wasn't more than a half mile when the rider's eyes were burned once more. A naked body was tied cruelly to a tree.
"Sweet Jesus..." Josiah's heart broke when he saw his best friend slumped motionless against the rough bark. The gentle healer's bared back was criss-crossed with angry red welts.
"Oh God..." J.D. swallowed hard and slid off his horse, following Buck's lead.
Buck's anger was too deep for words to penetrate. He cut the ropes that bound the gentle healer to the tree. He pulled the remnants off and eased Nathan to the ground, face down. He nodded to Chris, whose face was marked with revulsion and bitterness. "He's alive...but he's not good. You got any whiskey?"
"Yeah...J.D." Chris tossed back, "Bring all the canteens too, and your bedroll, then ride back and update Ezra."
Josiah cradled Nathan's head in his lap, wiping the blood away and talking in soothing tones. Somehow he hoped his friend could hear him, that the brown eyes he longed to see would open. Buck and Chris worked in strained tense silence, wiping away the grime, filth and blood on Nathan's back.
"Jesus..." Buck seethed, eyeing the back of Nathan's leg. Chris's head turned with his stomach as his eyes bore into the small bloody patches, where skin had been peeled away. He shook his head in disgust and took the whiskey and a canteen from J.D. Buck was gently swabbing the unconscious man's leg wounds. Chris handed a wet cloth to Josiah, who wiped the crusty blood from Nathan's head. Chris poured water over the raw welts and dabbed at the bits of debris that remained.
"You got him, Josiah?" Chris asked, "Buck get his legs, he's gonna feel this." He waited, with the open whiskey bottle poised over the wounds. The single agonizing cry caused the three hearts to constrict. Nathan's battered body buckled and he fought weakly, before slumping against Josiah.
"Easy Brother...I gotcha." Josiah soothed, head bent low, land hand gentle stroking the fevered face. "He's burning up..." his voice was distracted, and he gentle rolled the unconscious man into the blanket and cradled him like an infant.
"Josiah, let Buck and me have him." Chris stood on shaky legs and pressed a hand on the large man's downcast shoulders. "You get in the saddle, we give him up to you. Go on now. He's needs a doctor, best we get going."
They paused in the clearing, where J.D. and Ezra were waiting. Vin remained motionless, content to lie in Ezra's arms. Buck nodded and Ezra and J.D. gently lifted the unconscious tracker onto Buck's horse. Vin stirred briefly, before Buck's soothing voice and firm hand reassured him.
"We found Nathan, Vin. He ain't dead. You hear me, Son. He's alive..." Buck looked past the shivering shoulder to where J.D. was standing. The youth shook his head indicating Vin hadn't stirred and he had no idea if the injured man heard Buck's words.
Upon their arrival in town, they quickly entered the saloon, where the only rooms were. There was a large room at the top of the stairs with two beds. Chris opened the door, Josiah and J.D. were behind him, carrying Nathan. He moved to let them by and saw Ezra and Buck appear with Vin.
"No, the room next store." Ezra denied Chris's offer.
"But..." Chris frowned.
"He's right, Chris." Josiah said, pulling a sheet up to Nathan's waist. "Whatever caused Vin to lose it and think he'd killed Nathan...well, it won't help for the first thing for him to see is Nathan torn up. He's too fragile now."
"Alright." Chris agreed, standing in the hall. He watched Buck and Ezra sit the slumped tracker on the bed and peel the remnants of the shirt off him. "Get him cleaned up. Me and J.D. will find the doctor."
Josiah wrung yet another cloth off and wiped down Nathan's fevered face. The younger man was burning up with fever and mumbling incoherently, lost in a bad dream. Twice the unseeing brown eyes flew open, screaming and a fist lashed out, but wherever he was, it wasn't in the room.
Nathan peered through the smoke and flames and strained against the ropes that bound him. His nose filled with the acrid sweet scent of burning flesh and his own skin started to sear. He saw his father...his brothers... dangling lifeless from the trees over his head. Images swirled...sending the confused brain deeper in the nightmare world. The overseer turned into a large man with a skin head and evil eyes. He was holding Vin's head up by his hair. His friend's face was covered in blood. The blue eyes were crying out to him. As the flames heated his body up, his anguished eyes widened in horror as the beefy brute drew a knife out and began slashing the Texan repeatedly.
"Nathan...calm down. Vin's fine. Easy, Brother, you're safe now." Josiah wrapped his arms around the buckling body on the bed until he slumped.
"Josiah?" Buck appeared, having heard Nate's scream.
"The fever's giving him bad dreams..." Josiah sighed, wiping the sweat off his own forehead with his sleeve. "Hand me a wet towel, Buck."
"Yeah..." Buck nodded, wringing out the cloth. "I'll get some fresh water."
"How's Vin?" Josiah got his answer when Buck sadly shook his head, his dark blue eyes defeated. "Keep the faith, Brother."
"It's gotta be this house." J.D. took the steps to the white house two a time. He was about to bang on the door, when Chris brushed past him. The man in black pushed the door open just as a sour-faced physician appeared.
"Get your bag." Chris demanded, hands riding his tense hips. "I got a couple good friends hurt."
"I saw your so-called friends," the bigot drawled. "and they got what they deserved. Get out of my house or..."
The sentence was choked off by the freight train with green beacons that drove him hard into the wall. A muscular forearm crushed the air within his windpipe. He would have gasped, but there was no air in his lungs. Black spots did a lewd dance, as he saw the feral teeth bared in front of him.
"You get your damn bag and move your red-necked ass out that door. You a man of faith?" Chris snarled, lips twisted in hate. The blinking head nodded once. "Good. Start praying. 'cause if either of them dies, I'm gonna shoot that sick smile right off your face." The doctor dropped to the floor gasping as Chris's fist slammed the wall.
Ten hours later, the humbled physician sighed in relief as Nathan's fever broke. He assisted Josiah in changing the damp sheets and bedclothes of the now recovering man. He left, promising to return after getting some sleep. Nathan was breathing easier and Josiah even got him to drink some broth. But he had yet to become fully cognizant of his surroundings.
Vin's broken ribs had been bandaged and his head and eye stitched. The blue and purple bruises were a stark contrast to the pale skin beneath them. He was sitting up against a bank of pillows on the headboard, allowing him to breathe easier. He had yet to fully regain consciousness. When they were able to give him water, the blue slits were unfocused. The darkened room was quiet and dawn would be arriving soon. Buck paused in the doorway and looked from one occupant to the other. The sight of Vin's all to still form hurt him. The chest was barely moving and he wondered if Vin was even fighting. Chris hadn't moved since he planted himself in the chair across the room. His long legs stretched out in a bleak line in front of him, his eyes never leaving the Texan's pale face.
Chris eyed the sky beginning to lighten and his fears deepened. The doctor confirmed what he'd already guessed. The longer Vin went without waking, the worse his injury might be. He turned as Buck entered, carrying a pot of coffee and three empty cups.
"I'm gonna give Josiah some, I'll be right back. Vin come around at all?" He hoped, but the downcast eyes answered him before the head shaking. He patted Chris's back and made his way next store.
Josiah was dozing, but the slight footfall caused the slumbering giant to awaken. He nodded to Buck, who set the coffee down in front on him.
"That's okay, Buck. How's Vin?"
"He's weak, but I'm hopeful. He's keeping down water and broth, but he hasn't been fully aware. His nightmares finally slowed down. Where's J.D. and Ezra?"
"Taking them lowlifes to Apple Junction. There's a circuit judge there. There's no sheriff here, Ezra wired last night and the judge there okayed the transfer. They're heading back to Four Corners after that. We updated Mary too. I rousted that barkeeper, his woman's cookin' breakfast. She'll bring 'em up in a little bit."
"Go on and sit with Chris. I'm alright."
'Sure?" Buck paused, resting his hand on Nate's arm and sending a silent prayer.
"Yeah...I'm gonna read some verses to Nate. I think he might find some solace," Josiah replied, opening a dog-eared bible.
Buck paused at the bed and squatted down, patting the dark shoulder. "We got 'em, Pard. The ones that ain't already dead are gonna pay for what they did to you and Vin. You rest easy and don't let Josiah talk your ear off."
When Buck left, Chris stood and stretched, rubbing the small of his back. He wandered to the window and watched the sky turn from dark to light blue. He saw J.D. and Ezra loading the prisoners in the back of a wagon. He smacked his fist into his palm; he wanted to feel the life seep out of them. He glanced at Vin, who's face remained impassive. He tapped on the window and nodded at the wagon passed. He went to pour a cup of coffee and saw Vin's hand snaking it's way up his chest. He crossed the room and sat on the bed.
The burning sensation roused him. He felt sure his throat was on fire. His fumbling fingers felt his neck and he frowned, his fingers slipping on a tacky substance. A voice beckoned and he turned his head. A hand snagged his and he fought weakly. What was that sound? A garbled squeak? He forced his eyes open and the fire in his throat intensified. He tried to talk, but there was only that squeak again.
Chris intercepted the hand as it groped the salve covering the raw throat lacerations. "Leave that be...we ain't got too much of that stuff. It's helping the burns on your throat." He winced at the pathetic mewing sounds emanating from Vin's mouth. The rope had caused swelling inside as
well. "You with me, Vin? You want some water?" He held the mug out and the two blue eyes peeled open, regarding him curiously. They roamed around the unfamiliar room, before resting on the mug.
Vin's hand shot up faster than Chris expected and some of the water spilled. "Calm down...we got plenty of that. I know your throat hurts." He batted the hand that grabbed for the cup and lost his temper. "Cut it out, Vin! Let me help you!" His response was a blue glare, an irate squeak and the hand batting the cup away.
"Goddammit Vin...Look what you did..." He growled, retrieving the cup and filling it again. "Fine...Have it your way. You're gonna spill half all over yourself. Stubborn fool..." He saw the uninjured eye widened in accusation. "Shut up, Tanner...and drink." His hand hovered behind the shaking one, despite Vin's free hand pushing him away. The chugging of the water was accompanied by moans of pleasure, as the burning inside was quenched. "Slow down, you're gonna...shit..." He swore as the cup dropped and the chest began to buckle. He grabbed the nearest cloth, Vin's disgarded shirt, and gripped his neck as the water came back up. The dry heaves over the broken ribs were almost unbearable and the squeaking cries tore into the green-eyed gunslinger. He saw the tear streaks and kept pressure on Vin's neck. "I know that hurts...slow your breathing some...Here..." He held a cup and Vin took a several small sips, his shuddering breaths causing him to tremble.
Vin finally felt the wall of pain recede. He released his deathgrip on the sheet and saw the strange room through blurry eyes. The heaving motion had given him a wet face. He rubbed his eyes and looked around the room. This wasn't Four Corners. Where the hell where they? Why did he hurt so much? He heard Chris's voice and turned to face him. Chris was turned away and Vin tugged on his sleeve.
"The pitcher's empty, Vin. I'm gonna..." Chris paused and turned as his sleeve was pulled. "What?" he inquired then shook his head as the sad squeaking began. "Vin, you got no voice, don't talk." He looked at the frantic eyes, the unswollen one like a blue saucer that peered around the room, and finally rested on him. "You're gonna be fine. Took you long enough to wake up. You got some busted ribs, a concussion and some rope burns on your throat." He watched the face furrow and the head shake. Vin's eyes tore around the room again. "Nate's gonna be fine too, Vin." He answered what he thought the tracker was looking for. At the mention of Nate's name, Vin's head jerked and his eye squinted. Chris saw the total confusion there as the body slumped.
Vin fell back against the pillows bewildered. Nathan? Nathan was out of town. But we're not in town either. What the hell is going on? Rope burns...his hand snaked up to touch the painful area on his throat, only to be pulled away.
"Don't go there..." Chris directed, watching the chest heaving and the eyes darting in fear. The hand gripped his shirt and the squeaking sound started. "Vin...I can't understand you...you got no voice."
Buck entered the room, bearing a wet cloth. He heard the sad choking sounds and saw the lost eyes searching for an answer. "Sounds like somebody strangled a kitten." He teased, handing Vin the cloth. "Here ya go Pard, nice and cool, wipe your face off. Sure is good to see them baby blues. You sure had yourself a good long nap."
"I'm gonna get some water." Chris said, tapping Buck's back. He picked up the large pitcher and basin before leaving.
Buck felt Vin's hand tugging at him and sat on the edge of the bed. "What?" He studied the muddled eyes and frantic hands that slapped at him. "Look, whatever's upsetting you can wait until later. Right now, you need to eat something. Once you feel better...what?" Vin's exasperation came out in a feeble croak and his body flinging back onto the pillows, his fists banging at his sides.
Vin let the anger and frustration overflow. He screamed and pounded the sheets. He closed his eyes and tried to calm down. He tilted his aching head and let his thoughts wander. The last thing he did was ...an image of smacking Chris in the jaw in the saloon formed. His eyes shot back open and he raked a hand through his hair, crying out as he encountered a bandaged, painful lump. Buck's teasing voice and strong hand pulling his own down, drew him back.
"Smarts, don't it? Good thing you got a hard head." Buck saw Vin hold his index finger up and nodded. "Okay, I'm waiting. Take your time." He watched Vin point to his face, head and chest and then shrug, palms out. "You don't remember...anything?" Buck guessed and saw the head bob.
Vin looked dizzily around the strange room again. His eyes caught Chris's black duster. He tugged on Buck's sleeve and pointed to it. He then pointed to his face and chest and waited, eyes wide and wondering.
"Aw, hell..." Buck hissed, putting a strong hand on the confused man's arm and looking hard at the muddled eyes. "Is that what you think? That Chris hurt you?" He saw the head nod and Vin's hand make a drinking motion. "The saloon..." He saw the head nod solemnly. "You think Chris busted you up at the saloon? No Vin, that was three days ago..." Buck cringed as he realized his mistake and Vin sank back...mouth opening and shutting.
Vin added the clues up...three days...Nathan...rope burns...but no picture came. The only thing he felt was dread and shame when he visualized the soulful healer. Nathan's name and image made his chest hurt worse. He sighed and a sad choked moan escaped. What was wrong with Nathan? Maybe Nathan could help him remember. Unless Nathan wasn't okay and they were hiding something. His eyes flew open and he spotted Buck pouring coffee, his back turned. He saw Buck's head move and sank back, feigning sleep.
Buck saw the relaxed features and moved over closer. Assured the patient was asleep, he headed for the door. He paused, spotting Chris leaning against the doorframe. The bitter eyes told Buck his friend has heard the conversation. He laid a sympathetic hand on the tense shoulder.
"Poor boy's all mixed up Chris. Don't dwell on that."
"Don't dwell on it?" Chris hissed, "How could he think I could do that do him?" He saw Buck's raised eyebrows and answered his own question. "Alright...so maybe I have a problem with my temper."
"Maybe?" Buck chuckled. "Look Chris, you've had head injuries, it scrambles you up some. The last thing he remembers is you two fightin' at the saloon. I guess he figured things got out of hand. Thing is...he wants to know. Do we tell him?"
"No." Josiah answered, stepping out from the shadows. "Something happened out there...only Nathan and Vin know about. Whatever it was, it created that catatonic state we found Vin in. He truly believed he was responsible for Nate's death. So, maybe it's better if we hear from Nate first."
"Yeah...okay." Chris agreed, handing the pitcher and basin to Buck. The mustached gunslinger placed it at Vin's bedside. He pulled the blanket up and secured it over the slumbering man's shoulders before rejoining his friends in the hallway.
Vin peeled an eye open and saw the empty doorway. He got his feet on the ground and stood up. The room started spinning out of control and his arms flailed wildly.
"Vin..." Chris's head jerked, hearing the frantic mewing sound. He pushed past Buck and saw Vin toppling. "Damn it..." He hissed grabbing the sagging body. "Buck...gimme a hand. Where the hell was he going? He's half-naked for Christ's sake." He swore, easing Vin back into the bed.
Buck pulled the sheet and blanket up and gave Chris a warning, over the unconscious tracker's body. "He's was going for answers. You know how determined he is. We better hope Nathan talks soon. Vin's gonna be a handful."
He didn't remember the fire. Was it the barn? Was it the main house? Was it his house? The unrelenting burning and agony in his back screamed clues at him. He fought his way through the inky void, his legs fighting against an invisible current. Every painful step caused the pain to flare up and he cried out. He heard a new voice and paused, it was different than the one's baying at him with large yellow teeth.
"Easy Nate...I know that smarts." Buck's voice was steady but the rest of him wasn't. His heart ached for his fallen friend, battling demons in his nightmares. The injured healer was on his stomach, covered to his waist in a clean, cotton sheet and quilt. The shaking hand capped the medicine bottle as the last ministration of the lineament was completed. The rogue then gently bathed the sweating face and neck in cold water. He felt the tension leave the fitful sleeper and sat back, sighing deeply.
"No...hell, no," he swore, taking a shot of whiskey from Chris Larabee.
Chris eyes flicked briefly from the injured man's face to Buck Wilmington's. Buck had a heart bigger than Texas and it was bleeding right through his shirt. He rested a hand on the damp linen cloth and felt the tension in the angst-ridden shoulder. The dark circles under the murky blue eyes indicated the lack of sleep and amount of strain.
"Go get some lunch," the leader issued, noting the time. "It's after two o'clock. I'll stay with him."
"You sure?" Buck asked, he hadn't eaten since dawn and he needed to maintain his strength if he were to help his fallen friends.
"Yeah...Josiah should be back soon. He went to get the doctor."
"Vin?" Buck asked, pausing at the door.
"Still sound asleep." Chris replied, thinking of the stilled tracker, "Hasn't moved an inch since he took that broth at breakfast. He's a calm and Nathan is jumpy."
"He's hiding..." Buck guessed, knowing the Texan's penchant for keeping his feelings buried.
Nathan's battle began again and Buck froze, turning as the voice screamed out. "Get going Buck," Chris ordered without turning. He dropped to his knees and gripped the slick, dark skin. "Calm down, Nathan...I killed that fuckin' bastard...he can't hurt you no more."
+ + + + + + +
Nathan tried hard to find the owner of the voice. But all he could see was his uncle's body swaying in the night breeze. A full moon leered at him, it's garish yellow face the same hue as the teeth of the overseer who snapped the whip. His eyes left the large tree, and the bloody, beaten body of his Uncle Isaac. They'd tortured him for hours and made the younger Jackson watch. Now as he felt the fabric torn from his shirt, he strained against the ropes that bound him. He screamed as the teeth of the lash bit his back.
Chris kept his firm hold against the injured man's bucking body. Finally the screaming ended and the slump came, giving Chris a momentary respite. His ears still were scorched with Nathan's cries of grief for what Chris assumed to be a close relative. But then the screams changed...to fear and pain. He spotted the old, worn bible that Josiah left behind. He picked it up and sat on the bed beside the lost healer. He kept one hand on Nathan's neck, rubbing it and glanced at the open verse. He began to read, hoping that his strong, steady voice would penetrate the nightmare world and reach the valiant soldier.
+ + + + + + +
Vin opened his eyes and squinted painfully as the afternoon sun slammed into his aching head. He covered his face and peered at the strange room through the cracks in his fingers. He eyed the discarded tray and vaguely recalled Chris feeding him...soup? He was sore all over and his head throbbed. His stomach was cross with him for allowing the unwanted soup to take up residence. But the worst pain came from the simple act of breathing. He took small breaths and felt every one, as it left a searing pain. He eyed the water pitcher across the room and sat up. He cursed the weak state that his body was in and double-cursed his empty brain. He felt the bandages on his head and chest and wondered what had happened. Chris's angry eyes glaring at him in the saloon came to mind. Then as he attempted to stand, an image of Kojay and the village. Was that how he got hurt?
Had he fled Four Corners and gotten hurt on the way to the village? No...something was lurking on the edge of his mind. Something dark and sinister and it wasn't near the Seminole camp. What the hell happened? By the time he reached the table and sat down, he was spent. Rivulets of sweat ran freely down his face, racing toward his chin. He didn't have the energy to swipe them. His hand was shaking so badly from weakness that he barely was able to lift the pitcher. Only half the water found the glass, the rest splashed over the table. He managed to take several small sips, hoping that the cool liquid stayed down. He had a second glass poured and his shaking arm was almost to his lips, when the agonizing scream penetrated the thin wall near his head. The mug bounced off the table as the sound of his name tore into his head.
"Nate..." He croaked painfully, over his raw throat. He staggered to the door and turned left, pausing outside the doorway. He heard Chris and Josiah's voices first. He flattened against the wall, heart hammering as every word chewed off a piece of his heart.
+ + + + + + +
"Where the hell is that doctor?" Chris bellowed, using all his strength to keep Nathan's body in the bed. The injured man was fighting hard against a ghost from the past, known only to him. He managed to sit up and his dark eyes were wide with fear and anger.
"Don't know..." Josiah replied, kneeling and gripping Nathan's face in his large hands. "Buck's scouring the town looking for him and he's in a foul mood." The preacher drilled the lost eyes with his own pained ones. "You hear me, Nathan...Them devil's are long dead...High time for you to wake up..." He issued, and tapped the face gently. "Can you hear me?"
Nathan heard the voices again...he wanted to go...needed to go with them. Safe...secure...safe...his mind echoed. But he couldn't tear his eyes from his uncle's swaying body. His aunt was sobbing on the grass, one one reaching toward her man. His grandmother was trying to comfort her. He heard the other voice and flinched as a pair of green eyes entered the void. He trusted them but then they were gone...before he could follow. He looked back and saw the body and gasped. The unseeing eyes that cut through him like a knife, were blue...the hair was long and the skin was pale, and bloody.
"Vin?....NO...Jesus God....VIN! VIN!"
"Nathan...Nathan...snap out of it." Josiah ordered, slapping the face a little harder.
The air-shattering cry brought Chris to his feet. He'd been planted next to the delirious man and now stood behind the oldest peacekeeper. He placed one hand on Josiah's shoulder and one on Nathan's sweat-slicked one.
"Nathan?" He asked, spotting the eyes blink. How many episodes from his past was the kind soul forced to relive? How many times had he faced bigots with ropes and leering lynch mobs? How many family members had he seen murdered? How many times had a whip bit his skin? "Goddammit!" He screamed, jerking away and striding to the widow. He punched the wall hard and watched Buck down the street, his face red with anger. He was shoving the disheveled doctor ahead of him.
"Josiah?" Nathan blinked, and saw the gray head drop. He watched one large hand cover the face and rub the weary blue eyes. He only half heard the verse of thanksgiving Josiah murmured. His gaze then went to the window and the six-foot raging inferno whose green eyes were larger than the healer had ever seen...and filled with unbridled anger. "Chris?"
"Welcome back." Chris managed, then poured a large mug of cool water. He crossed the room and handed the gasping man the drink. He rested his hand on the slick shoulder and met the soulful brown eyes. His first instinct was to say he was sorry...but that wasn't right. His lips parted but no sound came out. But the wise healer read him well and covered the hand on his shoulder with his own.
"It's okay, Chris...ain't your doin'" Nathan sighed, then as he eyed the strange room, the events slammed into his head. "Vin? " He choked, covering his face with his hands. Was the garish image he'd dreamed been real? "Oh My God..."
"He's next door, asleep." Josiah reassured, and saw the dark head rise, eyes like brown saucers.
"He's alive?" Nate gasped, and saw both heads nod. "It was so real...I...I saw his body...a noose..."
"The noose was real." Chris said. "He's banged up some, but the doctor said he'll be okay. Busted ribs, concussion..." Chris's eyes darkened as the image of the black and blue tracker's body appeared. "There's not an inch of him not bruised..." His voice trailed off. "They tore your back up good, and you got some wounds on your right leg."
"You look like hell, Nate." Josiah said seriously.
"I feel like like it...every inch of me." The injured man winced, and resisted the urge to straighten up.
"What happened Nate?" Chris asked, studying the pained face.
Nathan took another drink of water and winced as his sudden squaring of his shoulders, caused the pain in his back to flare. "Shit..." He hissed, and grabbed the nearest hand, gripping hard.
"You up to this?" Josiah asked, not releasing that hand.
"Yeah..." Nate said, and took the shot of whiskey Chris offered. Wiping his mouth, he began. "The road was washed out...we came in late, dirty, tired and hungry. Vin didn't like the setup...I seen that look in his eyes, but we had no choice. We ordered some supper and got potluck. The chili was too hot...Vin switched with me after I tasted it. He took a bite and next thing I knew, we were surrounded. They didn't take to him using my dish...spoon. They threw him down and beat on him...damn..." He slumped, seeing the green eyes flash. "I'm sorry Chris...they were armed...I...'
"Nathan, Cut that out." Chris ordered, seeing the guilty eyes. "Wasn't your fault..."
"I ain't so sure..." Nate eyed the window, still seeing Vin curling up as those silver-tipped boots kicked him.
"I am..." Chris said, cutting through the haze.
"What happened next?" Josiah intercepted.
"I got butt-slammed in the head." Nate squinted. "Next thing I recall is being tied up, noose on my neck. They were toyin' with Vin. He's tied up too...noose cut him good...the rope was bloody. Didn't matter to him that he was tied up and outnumbered, he was takin' on all comers...and they kept beatin' him. I felt them tightened the noose and Vin caught my eye...He called over that big brute...nasty bugger with a bald head."
"...shame he died so fast." Chris almost sounded remorseful.
"Ya got him?" Nate's eyes widened. "All of 'em?"
"We killed a mess of 'em and sent the rest to see the circuit judge." Josiah steadied the shaking shoulder. "They won't be huntin' no more..."
'Hmmph!" Nate snorted in disgust.
+ + + + + + +
Vin bit his lip as the images slammed into him. The clouds parted and the images formed, in living color and crystal clear. The beating...being forced outside town...and then seeing them ready to hang Nathan. He thought it would work...his sincere offer born of desperation. But they'd laughed and presented their own offer by ripping Nathan's shirt off. He'd watched the proud man bite his lip against the pain and not cry out. They pulled him over, dragging him across the rocky ground, the tight noose on his own neck cutting off his air. He saw the large one that they called Bull, open a burlap bag and take out a handful of salt. Vin tried to scream out, kicking and fighting against the arms that held him down on the ground. Nathan's scream ripped through him as the salt was ground into the open wound. Then he felt himself jerked roughly up by the hair. His hands were freed and he clutched his throat, desperate for air. The bald bastard's face appeared in front of him...then the nightmare began.
"Oh God...What've I done?" He gasped, as every agonizing minute of the brutal night came back and slammed into him hard. He groped blindly, his knees buckling. He staggered into the room, and collapsed on the bed, shivering violently. The sweat was like a river, pouring down his pale face. He pulled the thin blanket up, which was ineffective against the bone-chilling cold. The picture ran over and over...the revisitation too painful to endure. He was grateful as the blackness swallowed him whole.
+ + + + + + +
"Nate?" Josiah snapped his fingers in front of the motionless face. The healer's tale ended abruptly as he blinked.
"Why ain't I dead?"
"Your name didn't get called yet." Josiah answered, unable to supply what Nathan sought.
"But...I...they...were fixing on a hanging...What'd Vin say?" The dark eyes inquired, glancing at both faces in front on him.
"He can't remember anything..." Josiah offered, "Poor Boy's shook up good."
"Is that all you remember Nate?" Chris asked, hands on his hips.
"No..." the dark man slumped, and sighed, "Vin...said something to him...he looked...desperate...but he was fightin' still had that glint in his eye. Then that bugger said something back, they all laughed and Vin..." He sighed again, "...it was like all the air went out of him...all the life just left him...his eyes glazed over...blank...I never seen him like that...they broke him...burned me up good." His eyes crossed. "The rest is blurry...I remember being whipped...then nothing." He ended, "Vin musta done something to get us freed...How you find us?"
"We set out when you didn't get back." Chris relayed, "We followed your tracks here...and spotted some son-of-a-bitch wearing Vin's coat. That led to that bald bastard...we found out where he took you before he got killed."
"We found Vin first, curled up on the side of the road. You were down further...tied to a tree." Josiah supplied.
"Sorry..." Nate shook his head. "Nothing's coming back..." He noted sadly of the missing pieces to the puzzle.
"S'okay, Nate." Chris offered, "You and Vin are alive, that's all the counts. I'll get some soup for you, then you get some rest. Buck's getting the doctor."
+ + + + + + +
Buck's anger hadn't abated as they reached the second floor. The excuse for a physician had been in the walkup of one of the local girls. He'd been having quite a party with two of the saloon girls when Buck found him. They passed Vin's room, enroute to Nate's when Buck stopped dead in his tracks. He wheeled around and spotted the doctor in the doorway of Nate's room. He turned back and grabbed him, propelling inside the Texan's room.
"Vin?" Buck cried in alarm, spotting the drastic change in his friend. He'd popped in on his way to eat, and Vin was resting comfortably. The body before him was bathed in sweat, which still poured freely. Buck's hand found the skin clammy and cool, the face as white as the sheet he was laying on. He was shivering uncontrollably. "What the hell happened? What's wrong with him?" He drilled the pompous doctor. Seeing the reptilian resident touch his friend gave Buck a chill, but he had no choice. After a brief examination the other man turned.
"He's in shock. Did he recall his unfortunate accident?"
"Accident?" Buck repelled, "It wasn't no damn accident...it was Goddamn necktie party. " He seethed, "No, he can't remember anything...or hasn't said he did."
The doctor read between the lines and didn't waste time. Loose lips being dangerous, he could take no chances. He fumbled in his bag and smiled as his hand caressed the container of morphine. He'd make sure the troublemaker didn't open his mouth again. Drawing the syringe up, he gripped the nearly translucent arm.
"What's that?" Buck asked.
"Something to calm his fears..." the reply came as the needle lowered.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan's head jerked up from where it rested on the pillow. Chris was almost at the door when he called.
Chris turned back and approached the bed. "What's wrong?"
"Who was that?" He gasped, grabbing the black sleeve frantically.
"Who?" Chris frowned.
"...with Buck...that man...his boots...silver toes on snakeskin..." He said almost in a daze. "He was one of them."
"The doctor?" Chris's head drew back. "You sure?"
"Them boots was right by my head. I saw 'em clear enough. He was the one kicking Vin, when them other dogs held him down on the saloon floor. It was him alright. If he thinks Vin can idenify him..."
"BUCK!" Chris screamed, racing through the door.
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