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Added Dec2004/Jan2005. If you liked it, I would love to know!
The blond prowled around the jail unable to keep still. He was worried and it was certainly showing. Vin had been gone for several hours longer than expected and the waiting was wearing on the gunfighter's nerves. The tracker was one of the most punctual men he knew and it was unlike him to ever be late. That fact made the blond fearful that something had happened to his friend.
Chris muttered under his breath and strode toward the door quickly. He seized the handle and pulled the obstruction open forcefully. He stepped out onto the boardwalk and looked up and down the street searching for the tracker.
His eyes scanned everything in sight suspiciously as if Vin would deliberately be hiding from him. He studied all the horses to see if Peso was amongst them. There was an almost black horse outside the saloon and his heart lifted at the sight, only to drop seconds later. On closer inspection it wasn't the equine he'd hoped it to be.
"Dammit where are you, Vin?"
The blond continued looking at the activity going on in front of him. He almost smiled when he saw a dog pee up the display that Mrs. Potter had carefully set up outside her store. The smile faded, though, before it had really come to fruition as the blond's mind once more turned to Vin.
The black-clad man kicked the chair outside on the boardwalk and stalked back inside the room. He didn't take the seat behind the desk but continued pacing up and down the jail, sometimes running his hand along the bars of the empty cells as he walked.
The door of the jail opened and Chris whirled round in anticipation, but it was Buck, not Vin.
"Hey, pard, I'm here to take over. All quiet, is it?" the tall ladies' man asked. He could tell that the blond was highly agitated just by looking at him.
"Vin isn't back yet. He was only going out to Nettie's to take that package that had come in on the stage for her."
"She's probably talked him into doing a few chores while he's there. You know what he's like. Can't refuse her, can he?"
The blond shrugged. Despite his friend seeming to be unconcerned, the gunfighter decided to mount up and set out of town to look for the missing tracker. He headed to the door without a word and strode off toward the livery barn. Buck frowned and hurried after him, knowing what his friend was going to do.
"Chris? Leave it a bit longer, pard. His horse coulda just gone lame for all we know," Buck said as he watched his agitated friend saddle up his horse.
The blond shook his head and said, "Or he coulda run into real trouble. I'm not taking that chance."
"Do you want us to help?" the tall gunslinger asked resignedly.
"Not yet. I need you to watch the town while I'm gone. I'll try to be back by nightfall."
Buck nodded, accepting that Chris needed to be doing something constructive. "Watch your back, pard. I'm sure Vin will turn up soon after you've gone, though."
Chris stopped working and turned to face his oldest friend. He stood with hands on hips and stared at the dirty straw at his feet. "I just need to know he's safe, Buck. This ain't like him."
"I know, pard, but he can look after himself in most instances. He's real self-reliant," the ladies' man said in a placating tone.
"Yeah, but I just got this feeling. Can't explain what it is but I know he's in trouble."
"Okay, I understand, pard." Buck could never quite comprehend the relationship between the two men. It was like they had a sixth sense that alerted them whenever their counterpart needed help. Although the mustached gunslinger was close to Chris, he was sometimes jealous of just how well the tracker got on with the blond.
Chris mounted his horse and nodded to Buck before kicking the creature out of the barn. He set off in the direction of Nettie's homestead and immediately kicked his horse into a lope.
"He's gone then," Josiah remarked as he walked up beside Buck and watched the black-clad gunfighter disappear. The preacher had talked to the blond an hour earlier and had known it would only be a matter of time before he went off in search of Vin.
"Yeah. You know what he's like, and I couldn't change his mind for love nor money."
"Well, we'll just have to pray that brother Vin hasn't come to any harm. There'll be hell to pay if he has."
"He'll come wandering into town in about an hour," Buck said as he looked at his pocket watch. "You mark my words, pard."
Unfortunately, Buck was going to be proved wrong.
Chris rode onward for an hour searching the trail and surrounding country with quick eyes. There was no sight or sound of his friend, and the blond's worry was increasing.
He met several travelers on the journey and he asked each and every one whether they had seen Vin. So far no one had, and the blond was wondering if he'd chosen the wrong direction to search in.
He was on the verge of turning back when he squinted into the distance as something strange caught his eye. A riderless horse was standing on the side of the trail swishing its tail at the flies.
"Peso?" the blond muttered as he urged his own horse onward.
He drew up beside the almost black horse and dismounted quickly. He checked it for injuries but thankfully found none. He didn't know whether that was good news or not, though.
Where the hell are you? he wondered as he patted the horse's neck distractedly.
The blond looked round him for any obvious clues and saw a flash of red under a nearby tree. He knew that Vin had been wearing a red shirt that morning.
"Vin?" he called loudly after sighing in relief. "You were supposed to back in town ages ago. I don't expect to find you snoring away the afternoon. That's too like Ezra for comfort."
He got no reply so he wandered toward the tree but came to a startled halt when he saw the bloody form of his friend lying in the grass.
"Vin? Shit, look at you, cowboy," he whispered in awe.
Chris knelt down beside the fallen tracker but he didn't quite know what to do next. Even touching the man didn't seem to be an option. The bits of Vin's skin that Chris could see were scraped, raw and looked very painful. He reached out a tentative hand but withdrew it without coming into contact with the injured man.
Have you been dragged by Peso? the blond wondered fleetingly, still considering how best to deal with the man. "Well, you can't stay here so it's best to get you to my cabin and in the warm. Can't help but hurt you, but if God's on my side maybe you'll stay unconscious."
First, the blond went back to the horses and tied Peso to his horse's saddle. He then went back to the tracker and reached down to scoop him into his arms. He stood up carefully and walked over to the horses again. He managed to collect the reins together and began walking to his cabin, which was luckily just over the rise of the next hill. He wasn't going to bother trying to remount with Vin in his current condition.
After fifteen minutes, the cabin came into sight and Chris hurried his pace. He threw his horse's rein awkwardly over the hitching rail and hoped the equines would stay put. He then stepped up to the door and somehow managed to open it while juggling Vin's limp body in his arms. He quickly kicked it open wide and struggled inside with his burden.
He lay Vin gently on the bed and looked him up and down critically. "Jesus, what a mess," he said as he shook his head. "Easy, cowboy. You've got yerself in a right state," the black-clad gunfighter stated quietly as he reached out a hand to keep Vin on the bed when he woke with a low groan.
The tracker looked up and blinked to try and clear his vision. All he could really see was a black blob so he raised a hand and rubbed his eyes, but to no great effect. "Hot. Hurt," he mumbled.
"I bet. Just lay still while I see to your injuries."
Chris found a lamp and lit it because dusk was approaching fast and he wanted to be able to see what he was up against. He shrugged out of his duster and removed his hat before rolling up his shirtsleeves. He then heated some water and found some rags to use as bandages. Firstly, he started to pull off the remnants of Vin's clothes, a job that wouldn't take long because they were already ripped to shreds. Chris gently pulled back Vin's shirt and sucked in a sharp breath at the sight presented to his eyes.
The tracker, meanwhile, wriggled feebly on the bed and moaned at the continuous pain that assaulted him. Just the act of breathing hurt and he'd never experienced anything like it.
"Sorry, Vin," the black-clad man apologized as he stared at the torn flesh on Vin's side. It looked as though the man had been rubbed up and down with a cheese grater. "Jeez, that's gotta hurt," Chris said out loud before he could stop himself.
"Yer telling me, cowboy," Vin muttered through clenched teeth as he drew in a slow breath. "The rest of me's in the same condition, I reckon."
Chris carefully removed the rest of the torn clothes and started to gently wash the horrible wounds on the tracker's body. Vin was right. Nearly every part of his body had a hurt of some sort on it. The man must be in agony.
Vin hissed and squirmed whenever he was touched and the blond finally gave the injured tracker some whiskey to try and deaden the pain.
"Here you go. This is one time I don't mind you getting drunk."
"Nor me," Vin agreed tightly.
Once Chris had washed off as much dirt and blood as he could, he dug around in a cabinet and found some salve. The blond always kept a small supply of herbal remedies in the cabin because it was a frequent stopping off place for injured travelers. He liked to be prepared for any sickness or injuries that arrived on his doorstep.
The blond headed back to the bed and dipped his fingers in the salve. It felt disgusting, and smelt even worse, but he held his breath and began smearing the thick substance over Vin's many wounds. He knew that the remedy worked wonders and the fact that Vin would smell like sewage for a while was a small price to pay. He just hoped Vin saw it that way too.
When he'd finished after quite some time, he reached for a cloth and spent a minute or two getting the remnants of the salve off his own hands. Jeez, I'm gonna stink as bad as Vin, but at least I'm in good company. None of the guys, if they ever get here, will dare say anything about it. If they do, they'll feel the toe of my boot kicking them somewhere painful.
He smiled to himself and turned back to his patient. He reached for his makeshift bandages and wrapped them securely over as many wounds as he could. Unfortunately, he didn't have enough cloth to complete the job, though, so he covered the worst ones and left the smaller ones open to the air. The blond then covered the tracker with a light blanket and studied him critically.
"Ow, jeez, Chris," Vin complained quietly as he tried to push the material away from him. Even the weight of the blanket was almost too much to bear. It seemed to crush the injured man and set his hurts throbbing twice as much as before.
"Go to sleep, Vin. You'll feel better in the morning."
"Crap. Who are you trying to kid?" Vin asked as he rubbed his ear and blew out a noisy breath.
"You, I hoped."
He saw a ghost of a grin flicker across Vin's sweat-slicked face before the injured man fell asleep.
Chris moved to the bed opposite his friend and lay down as he tried to fend off sleep. He wanted to stay awake in case Vin needed him but, inevitably, he couldn't help closing his eyes and dozing.
The tracker woke a couple of hours later and looked around the cabin slowly. He was trying to distinguish where his friend was in the gloom, but he couldn't pick him out.
"Chris?" he called quietly, needing to wake the man but not wanting to.
The gunfighter started awake, despite the softness of his friend's voice. "Yeah. What's up?" he asked as he rubbed his eyes to try and make himself alert.
Vin fidgeted in discomfort and pushed back the blanket. "I'm real hot, cowboy."
The blond rolled off his bed and moved to stand beside Vin. He reached out a worried hand and laid it gently, palm down, on Vin's brow.
"You are, aren't you? I'll get you some water," the gunfighter said sympathetically.
Chris walked to the lamp and turned the flame up so that he could see what he was doing. He then found the water jug and tipped some in a bowl and some in a cup. He first wiped his friend's face with the cooling liquid and he was careful not to touch the really badly affected areas of Vin's face. He then offered the feverish man a much-needed drink.
Chris put a hand under Vin's head and raised him so that he could sip the liquid. "Better?"
"Bit," Vin admitted as he was eased back down onto the mattress.
"Well, you're bound to be feverish. Your body isn't meant to be used as a harrow, is it?"
Vin moved slightly on the bed again to get comfortable but groaned loudly when he couldn't find a good spot.
"Easy, Vin," Chris said quietly as he started cooling the tracker's skin again.
"Jeez, I'm one big bruise. Thank God for my boots, 'cause I think the only bit of me that ain't hurt is my feet."
"Oh, I don't know. There's a bit of untouched flesh on your neck," Chris pointed out almost seriously as he stared at the solitary patch of pink skin.
"Shut up, Larabee. Need quiet. Yer making my head ache."
"Surprised you can tell, 'cause all your other hurts must be throbbing away too."
"You gonna recheck my wounds, or just talk about 'em?" Vin asked with a sigh as he gently raised his arm and rubbed his face with a shaking hand.
"Don't touch," Chris warned quickly as he pulled the hand away. He was much too late.
Vin yelled when he touched his badly torn cheek. "Shit," he muttered before passing out.
"Told you not to touch," Chris whispered sadly. He ran his fingers through his friend's damp hair as he wondered once more how Vin had come to be hurt. "Let me check the rest of you out while you're not awake."
The blond pulled the crumpled blanket back carefully and checked under the multitude of bandages. As he touched one particular area of skin on Vin's flank, the tracker woke and sucked in a startled breath as he pulled his body away from the probing fingers.
"That hurt?" Chris asked as he looked at Vin quickly.
"Could say that," Vin said weakly.
The gunfighter studied the area closely without touching it again. "Well, it doesn't look like there's anything different there to the rest of your skin. Does it hurt more than anywhere else?"
"Bit, but I think it's only 'cause I kept falling on that side," Vin replied, giving just a hint of how he'd obtained his injuries.
"Well, let me put a bit more salve on it and see if that helps."
Vin sighed as the cool salve calmed his flaming side. Chris re-bandaged the area and then covered the man up again before turning down the lamp.
"You up to telling me what happened?"
"Tired, cowboy. Ain't got the energy to talk."
"Okay, well, close yer eyes," the gunfighter ordered as he began wiping Vin's brow with a cool cloth. "We'll talk when you're up to it."
The long-haired peacekeeper sighed again and allowed the feel of Chris's ministrations to lull him to sleep.
Chris took up position beside the bed and dozed in a chair in case Vin needed him again. He woke feeling cold, and when he moved his neck it let him know that it wasn't happy with the position it had been forced to be in all night.
"Shit," he groaned as he sat up carefully and moved a hand to gently massage the very painful area.
"What's the matter with you? I'm the one who's hurt," Vin muttered from the bed.
The blond turned stiffly to look at the bed's occupant. "Tell that to my neck. Sitting next to you all night wasn't the best idea. Feels like it'll snap if I move too quick."
Vin wasn't in the least bit sympathetic. "Serves you right. There's a perfectly good bed over there, but no, you had to do your Florence Nightingale routine."
"Well, that's gratitude for you. I only got outta that bed 'cause you called me," Chris said with a smile. "How you feeling anyway?"
"Oh, I'm just peachy," Vin snapped sourly, regretting his tone immediately. "Sorry, cowboy, didn't mean to bite yer head off." He sighed and decided to answer his friend's question. If he didn't, Chris was liable to pester him non-stop. "It's real hard to describe how I'm feeling. Like shit, but worse, if that helps."
"I think that description only covers half of it. You've got a raging temperature and your skin resembles a slab of raw meat, in case you're interested."
Vin closed his eyes momentarily as he thought back on his experiences. "I can do without the vivid images, cowboy."
Chris smiled and patted Vin's arm gently. "Can you handle some breakfast?"
The tracker shook his head and raised his hand in a denying gesture. "Just a drink. Feel kinda sick and tired."
The black-clad man nodded in understanding. He hadn't expected a positive answer anyway. "Water, or something hot?"
"Just water, thanks."
Chris helped Vin into a more upright position and settled some pillows round his back to support him. "Okay?" he asked in concern when he saw the tracker screw his face up in pain.
"No, my back hurts."
"Because of the hurts you got now, or is it just the usual?"
Vin always suffered from back trouble because of his slightly curved spine so Chris needed to know why Vin was complaining more than usual. Let's face it, Vin hardly ever complained, did he? He always said he was fine no matter how he was truly feeling.
"Combination, I reckon," Vin said finally as he sat forward and tried to rearrange the pillows unsuccessfully. Every time he moved, his body protested mightily.
Chris reached in and tried to help but nothing he did made Vin's discomfort any better. "Well, have a bit of whiskey to ease the pain. Haven't got any laudanum, I'm afraid."
"Whiskey will be fine, cowboy," Vin groaned as he lay back, feeling exhausted.
The blond handed the bottle over as well as a glass of water. He then went to the door to see what the weather was like outside. He breathed in a lungful of fresh air and let it out slowly. He felt slightly more awake afterwards, although still not totally with it.
He turned back to Vin. "I'll just see to the horses, but yell if you need me."
Vin flapped a weary hand in the air to attract Chris's attention before he could step out of the cabin. "Cowboy? Need ya right now. Need a pee."
"Okay, sorry, Vin. Shoulda asked. Hold on a minute, will ya?"
"I'll surely try, pard," the younger man said as he bit his lip and tried to swing his legs out from under the covers.
The blond moved forward quickly and helped his friend up and saw to his needs without comment. He then eased the injured man back into a sitting position and covered him with an extra blanket because the air had turned much colder.
"No, but I'll just have to wait until the whiskey gets to work. Still feel like I'm burning in Hell too. Think God's trying to tell me somethin'?" Vin asked wryly before closing his eyes.
Back in town the remaining peacekeepers met for breakfast. They were all worried now and wished that they had taken Chris's fears seriously the previous day. There was a certain tension in the air, which might blow up at any moment.
"Now there're two of us missing. Chris said he'd be back by nightfall," Buck said as he quickly drank his cup of coffee.
Ezra scowled as he brushed down his pant leg before standing up. "And you, I believe, stated that Mr. Tanner would be back in town an hour after our illustrious leader went in search of him. Seems you made an error in judgment regarding the seriousness of the situation."
Buck turned angrily to face the gambler. He put out a pointed finger and waved it at the gambler as he spoke. "Didn't see you getting off yer ass yesterday to tell me I was wrong, pard. You didn't lift a finger to do much at all, as usual."
Josiah moved to stand between the two men, seeing that matters were liable to get nasty. He put a hand on each man's chest and pushed them apart forcefully. "We all made an error, brothers. We oughta know by now that when Chris says Vin's in trouble, Vin is in trouble."
"What we gonna do then?" Nathan asked.
"Well, I reckon we head out to Nettie's. That's where Vin was goin' yesterday," Buck said as he moved toward the door.
JD shoved the last of his breakfast into mouth and spoke, almost incoherently, round the mouthful, "I'll go to Chris's cabin. He may have holed up there overnight if it got too dark to come home."
The tall, mustached gunman nodded in agreement. "Okay, let's go. Don't you go missing too, kid," Buck warned.
"No chance," JD said as he put a finger to his hat brim and hurried to collect his horse from outside Mrs. Potter's store. He'd been on early morning patrol and had left his mount there while he had breakfast.
The group of men rode up fast into Nettie's yard and slid to a halt by the porch. The elderly lady pulled open the door quickly to see who had arrived.
"Landsakes, what's the rush?" she asked as she studied the serious quartet of faces. Something was definitely wrong and she'd bet her rifle that Vin was at the center of it.
"Did you see Vin and Chris yesterday?" Buck asked desperately, from his horse's back.
Nettie frowned and shrugged as her thoughts were confirmed. "I saw Vin, but not Mr. Larabee. Why?"
"Dammit," the tall gunslinger cursed as he scratched his head worriedly. He looked back at the elderly lady and grimaced. "They're missing."
Nettie's frown deepened with concern. "Well, Vin left here around half past four. He was heading straight back to town from what he said."
The mustached man shook his head in mystification. "Well, he didn't get there and Chris went out to look for him. Where the hell are they?" At least they now knew the general area where Vin had disappeared, not that there had been much doubt before.
Josiah turned his horse round. "Let's just hope that JD's had more luck. Best head back to town and wait there, I s'pose. No use in wandering off again yet 'cause Chris and Vin may well have got back home now that it's light. See you later, Mz. Nettie."
Midmorning, Chris heard the sound of horse's hooves and then a knock at the cabin door. He opened it to discover a dust-covered JD.
The blond moved to stand outside so that he didn't disturb Vin. "Hey, kid. Sure glad to see you," he said as he patted the youngster's shoulder in relief.
"We've been real worried, Chris. Did you find Vin?" JD asked as he tried to look inside the flimsy building. He'd already noticed Peso in the corral so he really hoped that the tracker had been found too.
"Yeah, and he's in a bad way. There's no chance of getting him back to town as he is, so can you send Nate out?"
"Sure, but tell me what happened. Nate's bound to ask so that he'll know what to bring with him," the kid said sensibly.
The gunfighter shrugged. "Vin hasn't been up to telling me yet, but it looks like he's been dragged along the ground, maybe by Peso. His skin's been scraped off and he's in a lot of pain, although I don't think there are any broken bones. He's got a right nasty fever, too."
"Okay, I'll be quick, Chris," the youngster said with a nod. He turned and leapt on his horse and kicked it into a lope, wanting to get back to town as soon as possible.
The black-clad gunfighter watched his friend until he'd disappeared over the horizon. He then stepped quietly back inside the cabin and looked toward the bed. Despite his care, he discovered that he'd woken Vin.
"Who was that?" Vin called weakly as he coughed painfully.
"JD. I've sent him for Nate."
"Oh, good," Vin said gratefully as he fell asleep again. Laudanum will be here soon. Hallelujah!
JD raced into town and pulled his horse to a rump sliding halt outside the clinic. He clambered off it and took the stairs two at a time before barreling through the door without knocking. He just hoped Nathan was there and not still out searching.
Buck and Josiah watched his arrival from the boardwalk outside the saloon. They exchanged fearful glances and began running across the street, dodging traffic as they went. The two peacekeepers entered the clinic fast after hearing JD's agitated voice inside. They saw Nathan standing over the smaller man with his hands on JD's shoulders in an attempt at calming him.
"Slow down, JD. I can't make head or tail of what yer saying. Take a deep breath and start again," the healer ordered.
JD dragged in a noisy breath before speaking, but still continued shooting his words out as fast as bullets. "Chris found Vin. He's hurt." The youngster had removed his hat on entering the clinic and he stood twisting it in his grasp in agitation.
"How badly?" Nathan asked anxiously after distinguishing what had been said.
"Chris thought he'd been dragged by Peso. I didn't get to see him but Chris was real worried about him, I reckon."
The healer went into action. Being dragged by a horse was usually fatal and it amazed him that Vin was still alive. He looked up and saw his other two visitors hovering inside the door. "Get my bag, Josiah, while I collect a few things together to treat him. Need to get to him fast."
"Sure thing, brother," the preacher replied as he began to stride across the room to collect the bag from the bed.
"I'll get the horses ready," Buck offered, before hurrying out of the room.
Nathan scurried round the clinic picking up bottles of potions, bandages, splints and laudanum. His mind was full of worried thoughts as he considered the possible injuries that Vin might have suffered. He knew that he may be heading toward a situation where all he could do was ease a dying man's pain.
"Anything I can do?" JD asked as he watched the frantic activity around him. He felt like a spare wheel and he wanted to be involved.
Nathan looked up momentarily. "Go find Ezra and tell him what's happened. Can you two stay and look after things here while we're gone?"
"But..," JD objected, wanting to see Vin for himself.
For once, Nathan looked angry. "Please just do as I ask, kid. Ain't got time for an argument. We can't just abandon our duties here. We'll let you know how Vin is, I promise."
JD nodded, although he wasn't happy about being left behind. He put his hat back on and turned on his heel to go in search of the elusive gambler.
Nathan stuffed everything he could think of into the bag that Josiah held out to him. The two men then hurried down into the street and looked in the direction of the livery. Buck was running toward them with three horses trotting reluctantly behind him.
"Couldn't manage all five horses," the tall man panted as he came to a wobbly halt next to his friends.
Nathan began securing his bag onto the saddle and he talked while completing the task. "It's okay. JD and Ezra are gonna stay and look after the town anyway."
"Got everything then?" Buck asked as he nodded in answer to Nathan's explanation.
"Yeah, let's ride."
The three peacekeepers mounted quickly and set off out of town and headed toward Chris's cabin.
The healer and his companions finally arrived at their destination and dismounted outside, leaving their horses with reins dangling. They left the creatures to their own devices, quite secure in the knowledge that they wouldn't stray.
"Chris? How is he?" Nathan asked after getting an answer to his urgent knock on the door. The healer tried to look round the gunfighter to see Vin for himself.
"In pain," the blond admitted as he stood back to let the men in.
Nathan rushed inside, almost knocking Chris over in his haste, and headed to the bed. "Hey, Vin. Let me look at you."
The tracker squinted up at him and winced. "Hey, Nate. My skin's on fire and I feel like I'm being cooked."
"Yeah, well you look rather red and boiled. Where do you hurt most?" the healer asked worriedly, as he cast his eyes over the battered body of his friend.
Nathan smiled sadly and nodded in understanding as he pulled back the blanket to reveal Vin's body to sight. "Okay, just stay still while I cut the bandages off."
He was very gentle while doing the task but he drew in a whistling breath when he saw the extent of the damage he had to contend with. "Jesus. Have some laudanum for the pain," he offered as he reached into his bag and withdrew the bottle.
"Don't mind if I do," Vin croaked weakly.
The healer helped Vin drink some and then set about treating the multitude of wounds. Once he'd finished, there was very little flesh that wasn't bandaged in some way. The tracker rather resembled an Egyptian mummy.
"How ya feelin' now?"
"I'm stiff and hot," Vin admitted with a groan.
Nathan ran his fingers through Vin's hair and then patted his shoulder carefully. "Not surprised. Can you get me some water, Chris?"
"Sure." The blond disappeared outside but returned soon after with a bowlful. He placed it carefully on the nightstand so that the healer could reach it.
Nathan dipped a clean cloth in it and proceeded to cool his injured friend down. The healer then gave Vin a few herbal remedies to combat his fever before taking a seat beside him to keep watch.
"Get some sleep and I'll stay out here until I can get you back to town," the healer said as he patted Vin's arm.
Josiah and Buck, who had watched in silence from just inside the door, nodded and headed toward the bed.
"Make sure you do as Nate tells ya, pard. We'll come out to see ya when yer feeling a mite better," Buck said kindly as he smiled at his young friend.
"Thanks, Bucklin. Don't think I'd be much company for ya right now," Vin replied.
Josiah took hold of the tracker's hand and patted the back of it gently. "I'll put in a prayer for you when I get back to town. Rest easy, son, and take care."
"I will, big guy," Vin managed to mutter before passing out. He'd been feeling increasingly weak and lightheaded and he couldn't fend off the faintness any longer.
"Take good care of him, brother Nate. We'll come out every day in case you need anything. JD and Ez will wanna see Vin too, I reckon," the preacher said as he lay Vin's hand back under the covers.
The two visitors then said their good-byes and headed back home, safe in the knowledge that their friend was in the best hands.
During that night, Vin started talking in his sleep, while tossing and turning in agitation. His fever was getting worse and his two companions spent all their time cooling him as best they could. The tracker had developed a nasty cough too and Nathan hoped he wasn't succumbing to pneumonia.
"No, please don't. I'll come quietly, but I'm innocent," Vin mumbled in anguish, waking Chris up from where he'd been dozing in the chair beside the bed. "I...I didn't. I ain't no horsethief. Ain't no horsethief."
"Easy, Vin. You're safe and nothing's gonna happen to you," the blond whispered quietly, hoping Vin could hear him. He reached out and rubbed a calming hand up and down the tracker's arm.
"Please, don't. Horsethief," the delirious man moaned.
Chris bent near every time Vin spoke and tried to distinguish what was being said. He frowned and looked over at Nathan worriedly.
"Well? What's he say?" the healer asked curiously when he saw the disconcerted look on the blond's face.
"Just keeps saying 'I ain't no horse thief.' What the hell does that mean?"
"No idea," Nathan replied, mystified.
Nathan sat by Vin for hours watching over him. He checked the man's many wounds periodically and continued to cool his feverish skin when necessary. During one of his examinations his eye was caught by some marks on Vin's wrist. He picked up the limb concerned and then checked the other one, before cursing heartily under his breath. He turned up the lamp by the bed and double-checked his discovery before turning to his silently brooding leader.
"Chris? What do you make of this?"
The blond wandered over to stand beside the healer and leaned down to stare at what his friend was pointing at. Chris took over the hold and rubbed his fingers gently over the bruising and marks that he saw.
He frowned and looked at Nathan in concern. "Looks like he's been tied up, don't it? How did I miss that?"
"You were concentrating on all his other wounds, and so was I, I'm afraid. These injuries kinda merged in with all the other cuts and bruising on his arm, but the bruising is much deeper than it was earlier, which is how I saw it. I think this discounts your theory about him being dragged by Peso, don't you?"
"Yeah, dammit," Chris agreed as he re-examined the newly discovered marks.
Vin opened his eyes as he heard his friends talking. He felt the careful grip on his wrist and he flinched at the pain and moaned. The blond carefully laid Vin's arm back under the covers and smiled down at the injured man.
"Sorry, Vin. Look, cowboy, can you tell us if you were tied up at some point?" he asked, when Vin looked at him.
The tracker blinked and frowned as he tried to remember. He drew in a shallow breath and then sighed. "What?" he asked in confusion.
Chris pointed in the general direction of Vin's arm. "Your wrists look as though they've been tied."
The blue-eyed man looked down and stared at the vivid marks on each arm. "Yeah, guess I was."
"Who by?" Nathan asked anxiously. He didn't get a reply, though. He watched as Vin closed his eyes once more and went back to sleep.
"Bastards, whoever they were," Chris cursed. He turned abruptly on his heels and began pacing up and down the room before storming outside.
Nathan pursed his lips as he heard a bucket being kicked around the yard. The healer stood and ambled out to join his angry friend. He leaned against the door frame and shook his head as he watched Chris work off his frustration.
"Feel better?" he asked wryly, when Chris came to a halt in front of him.
"No," the stormy-faced man replied shortly.
"We'll find out what happened when Vin's up to telling us. You've just gotta be patient, Chris."
"I don't do patient," the blond said irritably as he looked at Nathan. He sighed and then set off to the right to do a circuit of the outside of the cabin.
Nathan waited patiently until the gunfighter appeared to his left. Chris stopped for a minute in front of him, looking like he was going to speak, before striding off again without uttering a sound. The healer shook his head and went back inside to check on his injured friend. He retook his seat by the bed and left Chris to his own devices.
Half an hour later, the blond finally came back, although he didn't look any calmer.
"Sorry, Nate. Just hate being cooped up now that I know someone musta deliberately hurt Vin."
"I know, but if Vin wakes again we can try and get some more information from him. Buck and the others will probably be out today too, so we can pass anything we're told onto them so that they can start investigating."
The blond nodded curtly and sat down on the bed opposite the one that Vin was occupying.
Another half an hour passed by in silence before Vin began mumbling in agitation again. He fidgeted in the bed as best as his body would let him as he continued talking about horse thieves.
"Oh, shit," he exclaimed as he woke with a start. He tried to get out of bed to escape his dream but Nathan kept him horizontal with one hand placed on the injured man's chest.
"Ow," the tracker gasped sharply, making Nathan snatch his hand away.
"Sorry, Vin. Didn't mean to hurt ya but I didn't want you getting up," the healer said as he leaned toward Vin.
"God, it hurts," Vin gasped before coughing painfully.
Nathan winced at the sound and stood up to reach for a mug. "Drink some of this. Sounds like you've got a bit of an infection."
The healer raised Vin's head and the tracker took a few tentative sips. The injured man eventually sighed and pushed the mug away having had his fill. If he had any more of the dark brown liquid he knew he'd throw it straight back up.
"That's okay. Least you had some and you can have some more later," Nathan said with a smile as he made Vin comfortable again.
"If you insist," Vin mumbled unhappily.
"I do," Nathan replied as he let his grin widen. Vin always made it plain that he didn't like Nathan's herbal brews.
The healer looked up as a shadow fell across the bed. Chris had been listening to the conversation from the other side of the room but had now decided to join in. He'd been as patient as he could be but now his nerves were getting the better of him.
He perched on the mattress near Vin's waist and studied the man critically. "Hey, Vin. Sounds like you were having an eventful dream earlier. Care to tell us about it?"
"It weren't just a dream: not like make-believe, I mean. I was going back over what happened to me, I reckon," the tracker replied with a painful shrug of his shoulders.
"You kept saying something about a horse thief."
"Yeah, that sounds about right," Vin said as he nodded his head.
"Well?" Chris prompted expectantly when Vin didn't explain further. "What happened?"
Nathan took a quick look at his injured friend and held out his hand to stop the conversation. "Chris, I really don't think he's up to it yet."
"It's okay, Nate. Need to tell ya. Maybe it'll stop the dreams if I talk about it," Vin said quietly as he coughed once more. He winced and rubbed his chest carefully to try and ease the pain.
"Well, take yer time and don't tire yerself out," the healer said quietly as he sat back and waited to hear the sorry tale.
Vin nodded and stayed silent for a while as he thought back into the past and put events in order. "They said I stole their horse," he said eventually, while scratching his brow.
"Three homesteaders," Vin said with a sigh as he recalled his ordeal.
Two days previously
Vin urged Peso onwards. He wanted to get home and meet up with Chris in the saloon as arranged. Nettie had kept him longer than he'd planned, not that he begrudged the old lady, but he knew Chris was liable to worry if he was late.
The tracker's attention was suddenly diverted to the trees to the left of the trail. He saw a loose horse, complete with saddle and bridle, wandering along aimlessly.
There seemed no rider in the vicinity so the longhaired man headed toward it. The equine skittered away when he drew near and Vin noticed that it was very lame. He pulled Peso to a halt and jumped off his back to land nimbly by his side. He approached the strange animal again with arms outstretched in an attempt to placate it. The horse rolled its eyes suspiciously but stayed put. Vin reached out slowly and caught its rein before giving it an encouraging pat. He then bent to examine its leg after first running his eyes over the rest of the creature to see if it had any other hurts. He picked up the affected limb and saw that a large stone had become wedged in the hoof. He carefully pulled it out and let go of the leg again. Vin then pulled the animal onwards and trotted for a while but the creature hobbled and bobbed its head in pain.
"Well, looks like you bruised the sole good and proper." Vin stood with hands on hips as he studied the surrounding country. "Right, next thing to do is to try and find yer rider. They could be out there hurt somewhere. Chris'll just have to wait and worry."
Vin went back to Peso and tied the loose horse to his saddle. He then mounted and untied the rein again to lead the animal by hand. He kicked his own horse and set it back the way they'd come.
"Come on, hoss. We'll go nice and slow so that you can keep up without too much hurt."
Vin turned his eyes to the ground and started tracking the sign back in the hope of tracing where the animal had come from. He concentrated solely on the task at hand and shut out any distractions from his mind. He wandered through the trees for a while, stopping every so often when the tracks became faint. He finally ended up back on the trail half a mile from where he'd first found the horse.
He looked over at the animal and smiled in appreciation. "You sure are a nice looking critter. If I didn't have old Peso here, I'd sure be proud to own ya."
Peso threw his head in the air and snorted in disgust as if he understood exactly what Vin had just said.
The tracker laughed and reached down to pat Peso's neck. "Yeah, yeah, hoss. I said *if*, didn't I? Although you ain't got the best temperament, I wouldn't swap ya for the world. We've got history and you've dug me outta more than one bad situation."
Vin sighed and continued onward but looked up when he heard the sound of racing horses coming toward him. He pulled to the side of the trail and came to a stop just in the trees so that he wouldn't get knocked over. The three horses loped past at speed but were pulled to a halt just past Vin and turned round to face him.
"There he is," the taller man cried as he pointed to the horse Vin was leading.
The tracker tried to keep his own excitable horse under control as he stared at the men, who moved to surround him ominously.
"Put yer hands in the air, fella," one of them said as he pulled out a rifle and aimed it unerringly at Vin's chest.
Vin did as he was told as he continued studying his adversaries.
The smallest of the trio dismounted quickly and walked to the lame horse. "Yeah this is him. This is Goldie."
He then moved up to Vin and collected all his weapons, stuffing the guns into his own belt for safekeeping. After doing that, he ripped the horse's reins from Vin's hand and lead it back to his friends.
"Is he yours?" Vin asked reasonably.
"Yeah, and you stole it," the man with the rifle shouted.
Vin frowned and made to lower his hands. He quickly raised them again when the gun-toting man moved up beside him, and Vin found himself looking right down the twin barrels of the rifle. "I found him up the trail about two miles back," the tracker explained.
"I bet you did," the smallest man snorted derisively.
"I'm telling you. I found him back up the trail apiece," Vin said as he flicked a hand in the general direction.
"Well, we'll see what the sheriff in Four Corners has got to say 'bout it. Could hang ya right now, but I'd rather everyone in town saw you for the thief you are."
"There ain't a sheriff in Four Corners," Vin said calmly as he watched the three men warily.
"There's law there."
"Yeah, and I'm part of it. I'm a peacekeeper there along with six friends."
"Yeah, and I'm the Queen of Sheba. Don't believe you," the man with the rifle, Wallis, said.
"It's the truth," Vin replied with shrug.
Wallis looked him up and down in disgust. "Well, you don't look like the law. Yer lying. Get off yer horse. Joel? Get the rope."
Vin's heart skipped a beat, thinking he was going to be hanged after all.
Instead, he watched as Joel, a small weasily-looking man, dismounted and headed toward him with rope outstretched between his hands. The tracker didn't dare move because Wallis still had him in the sights of his rifle. He would wait a second or two longer before deciding on a course of action. If that rope was heading for his neck, he would much prefer to move and be shot dead. Anything was better than being hanged.
"Put out yer hands," Joel ordered sharply.
Vin did so. If they were going to hang him, they'd have tied his hands behind his back. At least that's what he hoped anyway. The rope was wrapped tightly round his wrists and tied in place securely. Vin studied the man closely and imprinted his features in his mind. Now that he was nearer, Joel looked vaguely familiar, but the tracker couldn't quite place him. He was on the verge of asking the man a question to try and satisfy his curiosity when he was led toward Wallis. The rope was handed up to the leader of the group and Vin was pulled roughly into line.
"Okay, guys. Let's get this bastard to town for a trial and a hanging," Wallis said as he rebooted his rifle and took hold of the rope.
Vin finally realized he was going to be forced to walk the whole way. Oh, well. That's better than ending up decorating the nearest tree. Boy, how wrong he was.
Joel sniggered as he remounted his horse and took charge of Peso, while the third rider, Maskell, led Goldie. When they were settled, the three riders and their prisoner set off to Four Corners.
The rope round Vin's wrist began to rub the delicate area of skin as he tried to keep up with Wallis's long striding mount. The tracker found he had to hasten his gait every so often anyway, because he had the added hassle of Joel riding very close to him and poking him with his foot.
"Get a move on," the small man ordered as he kicked Vin's shoulder hard. The man kicked his horse into a slow trot and laughed.
The longhaired sharpshooter had no choice but obey. He ran for a few strides before tripping over a rock and falling heavily on his side, and he wasn't even given the chance to regain his feet. Wallis looked back and smiled sadistically as he urged his horse on faster, dragging Vin along the ground behind him. The tracker bit his lip, not wanting to give the men the satisfaction of hearing him cry out.
He continued being pulled over the unrelenting ground at quite high speed. He tried to flip over onto the other side of his body to stop the injuries from getting worse on the side he was currently on. It felt as if every layer of skin was being peeled off like an onion. He knew if he changed positions it meant that more of his body would be hurt, but he didn't really have much choice.
Wallis was suddenly forced to slow the pace when his horse tried to shy at a shadow on the trail. Vin took advantage immediately and managed to scramble to his knees and then to his feet. He couldn't help the loud groan that escaped his lips as his bruised and battered body was made to move. He was in agony and he knew that the remainder of the journey would probably follow a similar path to what he'd already experienced.
His captors didn't allow him a chance to catch his breath before he had to move on again. His wrists were yanked forward harshly and he stumbled on a few steps as he tried to keep his balance. He ran on again and managed to slacken the rope between him and Wallis, and he concentrated on keeping it slack.
Joel again moved in behind him, though, intimidating the injured man by keeping his horse breathing down his neck. Vin flicked a look over his shoulder and saw a cowboy boot shod foot heading for his face. He couldn't avoid it and he fell on his chest, knocking the wind out of his lungs, before finding himself dragged along the ground once more. He pulled on the rope to try and get Wallis to stop, but that only made his arms come into contact with the ground where the skin was quickly ripped to shreds.
"Get up," Wallis yelled as he yanked the rope unmercifully, not giving the man a hope of regaining his feet.
Vin clenched his teeth as he tried to remain conscious. The stony ground dug into his skin, and his body seemed to heat up with the resulting friction. There were at least another couple of miles before they reached town and he knew he wouldn't survive if he was forced to travel like this.
His thoughts were interrupted when he heard Wallis curse. He looked up to see a group of riders heading toward them, although they were still quite some distance away.
For some reason, Wallis now didn't want others seeing what they'd done to Vin. The man's bravado seemed to have been extinguished at the prospect at being confronted by strangers. That didn't bode well for Vin's future if the man was starting to experience some pangs of guilt. The journey to town and Vin's salvation may come to an abrupt halt, but the tracker would have to wait and see what happened next.
Wallis looked round at his companions. "Get him outta sight," the man ordered as he pulled his horse sideways to try and block Vin from view.
Maskell dismounted quickly after passing over Goldie's rein to Joel. He then literally threw the tracker into the thick undergrowth at the side of the trail. He'd just remounted his horse when the other men met up with them.
The tallest of the men frowned as he studied Peso after coming to a halt opposite the equine. "Where did you find that horse?"
"It was back up the trail apiece," Joel said innocently. "We were taking it into town to see if we could find the owner."
"He belongs to Vin Tanner who is one of the peacekeepers there. There wasn't any sign of him where you found the horse, was there? He's missing too, see?" the man asked anxiously as he looked at each man expectantly.
"No, we scouted the general area, but there was no sign of a rider," Joel lied, managing to keep the horror out of his face at the news that Vin was indeed a peacekeeper.
"Well, Mr. Larabee will wanna speak to you to find out exactly where you found the horse. Sure hope Mr. Tanner's okay. He's very well thought of in town."
"We'll do all we can to help, of course," Wallis said as he nodded in seeming sincerity. Inside, however, he felt ready to empty the contents of his bowels.
"I'll have a look along the trail as we go in case we come across him on the way to Eagle Bend. Mr. Larabee was sure worried about him when we left Four Corners." The tall man put a finger to his hat brim and urged his horse past the three riders. His companions followed behind him and Wallis watched until they were out of sight.
"Shit! Now what do we do?" Maskell said. "Got all the other fucking peacekeepers out looking for him now, I bet."
"Leave him. Set the horse loose and get outta here. Those gents aren't going back to town, so the other peacekeepers won't get to hear about our involvement until we're well away from here." Wallis watched as Joel dropped Peso's rein like a hot potato.
The three men looked back once before loping across country, leaving Vin to his fate.
The tracker had lost consciousness when Maskell had unceremoniously thrown him into the shrubs. He'd landed hard and hit his head on some unseen object so he'd heard nothing of what had transpired between the two groups of men. All he knew was that when he woke he was alone, although he could see Peso munching on some grass nearby. Vin tried to stand and get to his horse, but he soon realized that Peso was a hopeless target. He didn't even have the strength to roll over, so he closed his eyes and let the darkness claim him once more. Maybe he'd feel better later. No chance.
He woke once more, half an hour later, and began to slither backwards inch by inch toward a tree that he could see nearby. Each movement wrought a cry from him and he had to stop every few seconds to regain his limited breath. His vision was clouding with darkness and bright colored spots, but he forced himself onwards. He shifted the last few inches until he was leaning back against the tree trunk and he let out a loud groan. He was totally spent.
He sat and listened to the sound of creatures rustling around in the undergrowth, and he heard a few birds singing to herald the end of daylight. He wondered if he'd ever hear those sounds again. After a while, the tracker raised his head and realized that he could see the trail pretty well in both directions. Hopefully, if any passersby came his way he would be able to attract their attention. He waited, and waited in vain.
His head kept slumping forward and he had real trouble keeping his eyes open. His head jerked up suddenly and he knew that he had passed out momentarily. He tilted his head back and stared at the sky as he watched a buzzard circling overhead looking for its supper. He sighed and turned his gaze back to the trail, but Vin knew it was getting a bit late now for anyone to be out traveling.
"Chris? Need yer help, pard," he mumbled as he closed his eyes for the last time.
His plea was answered an hour later when the black-clad gunfighter finally found him.
Back to the present
"Bastards," Chris cursed, once Vin had relayed his sorry tale. He reached out an anxious hand and ran it through Vin's hair. "Sounds like you had a real bad day."
Vin managed a light huff of laughter at his friend's unintentionally funny words. "Could say that," the tracker managed to say before starting to cough and turning rather red in the face as a result.
"So did you recognize them?" Nathan asked after helping the injured man to drink some water and a bit more herbal brew.
The tracker nodded and took a few moments to catch his breath. All he really wanted to do was sleep but he could see that Chris, in particular, was getting impatient. "One of them. Joel something or other. Can't remember his surname, I'm afraid." Vin paused again, seeming to only able to manage short sentences as he tried to fend off another coughing fit. "He has that homestead up near Johanssen's place. I kinda recognized him but I didn't know why. Didn't get the chance to ask, neither."
The blond nodded as his heart began beating faster at the prospect of getting his revenge. "Yeah, Joel Samuelson, I know him. He ain't been there long, has he?" he asked darkly. The gunfighter turned abruptly and strode to the door, which he opened purposefully.
"Chris? Where the hell do ya think yer going?" Nathan asked sharply.
The black-clad man whirled back to face his friends. His black duster swirled around him noisily, making him look like a caped crusader off on a mission to save the world. "Where do ya fucking think?"
Nathan shook his head vehemently. "Not on yer own, you ain't. Wait until Buck, or one of the others, gets here so that they can go with you. You're liable to get yerself killed 'cause of the mood yer in right now. Sit down and calm down," the healer instructed as he stood threateningly to make sure he was obeyed.
Chris slammed the door shut in irritation and perched on the edge of the bed looking ready to bolt any minute. He kept fingering his gun and looking toward the door longingly as if Buck would suddenly appear outside as if by magic.
Vin, meanwhile, gave in to sleep. He'd totally exhausted himself and it would be many hours before he woke again. Nathan saw that his eyes were closed and he automatically reached out an anxious hand to test the man's temperature. He pulled another blanket out from the nightstand and laid it over Vin.
Chris looked at him worriedly. "He okay?"
"Yeah, just wore hisself out. Best to let him rest as much as he wants now, I reckon. He's a bit weak and feverish still, and you heard how bad his cough was."
Chris nodded but leapt to his feet when he heard the sound of approaching horses. He almost ran to the door and then tumbled outside onto the porch as he tripped over his feet in his haste. His four newly arrived friends immediately thought something bad had happened to Vin because of Chris's frantic reaction to their arrival. They assumed that Vin had taken a turn for the worse.
"Chris, pard?" Buck said, in a shell-shocked tone as he quickly dismounted and strode toward the pale blond.
"We're goin' hunting," Chris growled.
"Is Vin okay?" the mustached man asked as he walked to the door and looked in worriedly. He waved to Nathan and then looked back at Chris who was saddling his own horse quickly.
The blond felt his oldest friend's gaze on him and he turned to face him. "He's resting, but he told me who was involved in hurting him. Get back on yer horse, Buck."
The tall ladies' man did as he was told and the men waited for their leader to join them. The black-clad man didn't utter a word but turned his horse in the direction he wanted and booted it onwards. His companions exchanged curious looks and pulled in behind him. None of them were sure if they should try to get more details from the brooding man, but Josiah decided that he wanted to know who they were going after. He urged his horse upsides Chris's and looked across at him. The blond's face was set with a stormy expression and the preacher knew he might get a torrent of abuse, but he didn't really care.
"Brother Chris? Where are we going?" he asked gently.
"Joel Samuelson's place." The blond almost spat out the name and as a result it sounded more like a swear word.
The preacher narrowed his eyes and decided to state the obvious, no matter the consequences. "If he's smart he won't have gone home."
Chris's head snapped round and glared at him. "He isn't smart, 'cause he hurt my friend, and for that he's gonna pay. Even if he isn't there, we may find some clue as to where he's hiding."
"I hope you're right, son," Josiah said as he pulled back to join the other three men.
The group rode on relentlessly until the Samuelson homestead came into sight. Chris signaled for the group to stop while he studied the house and surrounding area closely before waving them on when he saw all was clear. They dismounted, tied their horses to the hitching rail and went inside the house to start searching. They split up and went to look in each room. With Chris being the least methodical person when he was irate, Ezra decided to stay with him to make sure he didn't miss something important. The blond was liable to just tip the entire contents of drawers out on the floor, expecting the information he needed to be miraculously on top so that he could find it. The gambler, therefore, followed the man round like a shadow, rechecking everything he discarded.
The younger man bent down and ruffled through some papers that Chris had just thrown on the floor, and he smiled when something caught his eye. "Mr. Larabee?" the gambler said as he waved the paper in the air. "Seems our friend is in partnership with two other men and they possess a gold mine up near Bitter Creek. I suggest that it may prove a valuable excursion if we paid it a visit."
"What are the names of the other owners?" Chris snarled, reaching for, and missing, the sheet as Ezra hastily pulled it out of his way. The gambler feared that it would be torn to shreds by the angry gunfighter.
"Jeremiah Wallis and Eli Maskell," the con man said after watching the other peacekeepers enter the room.
"Jeez, what is it with Vin and men called Eli?" Buck said with a slight grin, which disappeared rapidly when Chris shot a vicious look at him.
The blond then turned to the other men and glowered like a thundercloud. "Anyone got anything useful to say?"
"We haven't found a damned thing, Chris," Josiah admitted with a shrug.
"Okay, we'll go with Ezra's lead then. Those other fellas he named could well be the men who helped hurt Vin. Let's ride and find out." Chris turned on his heel and headed outside, his footsteps stomping heavily across the ground.
Ezra pulled Buck toward him. "I think it would advisable to keep our leader on a tight leash, don't you? He seems in a rather unpredictable frame of mind. I'm thinking more for his welfare than those miscreants who hurt Mr. Tanner. I couldn't care less about what he does to them."
"Don't worry, Ezra. I'll keep him in check," the ladies' man promised as he patted the man's back and followed the rest of the men out.
The four peacekeepers finally reached their destination after some hard riding. Their horses were trembling and covered in sweat after being asked to work so hard. Dust stuck to the creature's coats in thick patches, changing the horse's colors dramatically.
Ezra dismounted and retrieved the piece of paper about the ownership of the mine, as well as a map, from his pocket and consulted them closely. His friends waited patiently, or as patiently as they could manage in Chris's case.
"I do believe our goal is that mine entrance yonder," Ezra said as he looked up and pointed to the mineshaft at the bottom of a nearby hill. "I seem to recall a gold mine being involved at the start of our unique partnership, don't you?" the con man said with a grin.
Chris turned toward him angrily. "Yeah, well perhaps you'd better stay here in case you get any greedy ideas," he snapped. "Just don't disappear on me again or you'll regret it."
"Of course I won't disappear," Ezra retorted indignantly. "As if I would even contemplate such thoughts, Mr. Larabee. I will wait here while you go in and flush out the quarry like a hound. I will remain in place to catch any potential escapees, never fear."
"You'd better," the blond growled as he headed off toward the mine on foot.
"As I said, an unpredictable mood. I thought we were all supposed to be on the same side, although I'm sure he'd rather see me locked up behind bars sometimes," the con man muttered, as Buck smiled and hurried after his oldest friend.
He caught up and pulled Chris to a halt, hoping he wasn't going to get a fist in the face for his trouble. "Don't go barreling in there like a charging bull, pard. We need to be real quiet and creep up on them before they know what's hit them."
"Don't damned well lecture me, Buck," Chris said as he pulled out of the tall man's grasp.
"Someone needs to, before you get yer thick head blown off. We don't even know if the other two gents are involved, so take it easy, pard. Don't wanna kill anyone innocent, do we?" The tall man pursed his lips. "Lay off Ezra, too, will ya? He won't ever let us down again, pard, and you *know* it."
Chris nodded curtly, not speaking as he indicated for Buck to take the lead. The group strode quietly into the mine and inched along the shaft carefully. There were no sounds to start with, except from them, but Buck strained his ears and finally heard the sound of distant voices. He turned and put a finger to his lips to make sure his companions stayed silent. He walked on carefully, avoiding the numerous bits of debris on the ground, until he could distinguish what was being said. He then stopped to listen before deciding on the next course of action.
The ghostly voices floated down the shaft toward them. "We shoulda taken his word for it. He could be dead for all we know. We coulda killed a damned peacekeeper."
"If he's dead, no one will know it was us, you fool, will they?" an angry voice replied. "Dead men can't talk."
Josiah clamped a hand on Chris's shoulder to stop the man running in with guns blazing. He felt the black-clad man flinch under his hand but Chris stayed put, knowing better than to try and wrestle with the bigger man. He'd done it once before and had been subdued very easily. He wasn't going to tempt fate twice.
The disembodied voice began again. "The problem starts if he's still alive. You're the only one he's likely to know, Joel, 'cause we're strangers round here."
"It didn't look like he recognized me and I ain't been here real long, have I? I tell you this though, Eli, I sure as hell ain't taking all the blame for this. Wallis told me to tie him and he was the one that dragged him along behind his horse."
"Yeah," a new voice snarled, "and you were the one who kept kicking him over so that he was dragged."
"Didn't see you fucking stop when he fell, you just urged yer horse on faster," Joel complained.
Josiah felt Chris wriggle in his grasp so the preacher released his hold, knowing they had more than enough evidence to charge the men. He just hoped that Chris would act rationally in the circumstances.
"I don't need to hear any more," the blond whispered angrily. He strode forward with gun drawn, the rest of his men trailing behind him down the thin shaft.
He caught sight of his quarry and yelled, "Arms in the air and don't even think of twitching. I've got a real itchy trigger finger."
Josiah stepped round the man and disarmed the three startled prisoners. "I'll be taking those, if you don't mind." The preacher handed the weapons to JD and then helped Buck to secure Wallis, Maskell and Samuelson.
The three men were then pushed out into daylight to find Ezra waiting for them. The gambler was sitting on a boulder with his gun trained unerringly on the mine's entrance. He looked rather disappointed when he saw that the men had been secured safely.
"I see you didn't require my services after all."
"No, but we'd never have found them if you hadn't checked up after me at the house. I owe you, Ez," Chris said gratefully.
Ezra tipped his head and put a finger to his hat brim in acknowledgement of Chris's thanks and what passed for an apology. "You are most welcome. We'll take charge of the prisoners while you go and inform Mr. Tanner of their capture," the gambler offered, knowing the blond would want to go and check on his injured friend.
"Thanks, I will." Chris felt all the anger and tension drain out of him just as if a faucet had been turned off. He stood still for a few minutes to allow the inner calm to take control of his body.
His fellow peacekeepers, meanwhile, led their captives to their horses, which Ezra had found, and pushed them up into the saddles unceremoniously. They made sure that they were secured tightly and then Buck, Ezra and JD took charge of one prisoner each. Josiah opted to patrol the group to make sure none of them got any ideas about attempting escape.
"Come on, you bastards. Make sure you behave or we'll give you a taste of yer own medicine and see how you like being dragged behind a horse," the preacher threatened as he started the prisoners going.
"Well, meet you in town, then, Mr. Larabee. Give Mr. Tanner our best, won't you?" Ezra said as he hung back.
"I will, Ez." Chris waved as he hurried to his own horse and kicked it back toward his cabin.
He arrived back at his home and entered the building quietly in case Vin was still asleep. The room was dim, only lit by the small flame from one lamp.
"How is he?" Chris asked the healer as he looked toward the bed anxiously, trying to see how Vin was for himself.
"Doing okay, but he ain't woken in all the time you've been gone. Did ya have any luck?" Nathan asked hopefully, as he stood up and moved away from the bed in the hope of not disturbing Vin.
"Yeah, got them all." Chris explained briefly how they had traced the three men to the mine. "They're heading back to town for trial."
Despite their care, Vin woke as he heard the quiet voices. "What's all the racket?" he mumbled as he rubbed his eyes to try and wake himself up. He was amazed to find that he actually felt better, although still far from recovered.
The blond gunfighter ambled to the bed and smiled at the tracker. "Was just telling Nate how we caught the men who hurt you. They'll be safely behind bars in the jail by now, cowboy," the man informed him, as he took off his duster and hat and sat beside the bed. He then repeated the story he'd just told Nathan, not leaving any details out this time.
"Ezra's worth his weight in gold, ain't he?" the injured man said, as he grinned at his joke.
"Hah," Chris chuckled, glad to see that his friend seemed to be in better spirits. "You can say that again. He's gonna be insufferably smug for ages."
"He deserves to be," Vin said. "I owe him big time. And you. Thanks for coming to find me, Chris."
The black-clad man reached out and patted Vin's shoulder gently. "I was hardly gonna stay in town when I knew there was something wrong, was I? Anyway, Mz. Nettie woulda had my hide if she'd discovered I hadn't even bothered to go look for ya. Nothing worse than a riled Nettie, is there?" the blond said with a laugh. "I wouldn't have wanted to become another notch on the butt of that old Sharps rifle of hers."
"She wouldn't have shot you, cowboy. She'd just have worked yer butt off at her homestead. She's a hard taskmaster."
"I know." Chris could hear the fatigue in Vin's voice. "How you feeling, anyway?" the blond asked.
"So-so. Reckon I might be able to head home soon though, cowboy. Feeling more human than I was yesterday, although I still hurt like hell," Vin admitted as he shifted slightly on the bed and groaned.
"Well, you'll stay here until Nate's happy with your condition, okay? No sense heading home before you're really ready," the gunfighter advised.
"Yeah, yeah, don't run before you can walk. I hear ya. Yer turning into a right mother hen, Larabee," the tracker complained.
"Well, I have to be 'cause I don't want a riled Nate breathing down my neck, either. Can't stand both him and Nettie ganging up on me. If I take your side in this, Nate's liable to splint all my limbs so that I can't take you home."
"I heard that, Chris," the healer grumbled from where he was making some more herbal remedies.
Chris turned to face the man and arched his eyebrows. "True though, isn't it?"
"You bet," Nathan said as a demonic smile spread across his face. He looked almost predatory as he began walking back toward the bed.
The injured man scowled. "I can see that we're gonna have to come up with an escape plan," Vin whispered conspiratorially to the blond as he flicked a look toward the healer.
"We'll be lucky! He's probably booby-trapped the door," Chris said as he laughed. "Vin's obviously improving, Nate. He's already planning how to get out of here. Set a date for his release, will you, before he takes matters into his own hands?"
The healer reached out a hand and checked Vin's temperature. He then did a thorough examination and settled the man back on the bed before studying him for a few silent minutes. "Day after tomorrow. Reckon that sleep did you the world of good. I still want you in the clinic though until you've totally got rid of that cough."
"Deal," Vin said in relief before falling asleep again.
"Thanks, Nate. You know what he's like when he gets the fidgets. Least he'll behave himself now that he knows he'll be going home soon," Chris said as he stood up and let Nathan take the seat by the bed again.
"Well, he's recovered faster than I thought he would, although his wounds are gonna take time to heal. He's a tough kid." Nathan smiled. "Tough, but with a heart of gold."
Chris looked up to heaven and sighed. "Oh, no. Don't get back onto the subject of gold again. That damned metal keeps cropping up in our lives."
"Ezra seems to like it," Nathan said with a grin.
Chris smiled at the image that popped into his head. "Yeah, he does. Bet he's already taken first watch in the jail so that he can challenge those bastards to a card game, with the mine as the prize. He's always working the angles, isn't he?"
"Reckon he deserves it this time, though," the healer pointed out, as he reached out a hand to comfort Vin when the man mumbled in his sleep.
"Yeah, so do I, but I still reckon he's a twenty-four carat pain in the ass," Chris laughed.