After Watts's departure, Ezra tried unsuccessfully to forget about how hungry he was. Vin was leaning back against the rock with his eyes closed. Slowly, Vin opened his eyes, but he looked dazed. "Is Chris here?"
Ezra wearily rubbed his forehead. "Believe me, Vin, Mr. Larabee's sour countenance would look better to me right now than that of the most beautiful courtesan." The comment didn't seem to register, and Vin's eyes closed again.
Skinner returned with a canteen in one hand and two biscuits in the other. "Luther said ta give y'all somethin' ta eat." He handed Ezra the canteen and placed the biscuits on a rock. He crouched down in front of Vin, studying him and then slapped Vin across the face. "HEY, WAKE UP!"
Startled by the slap and Skinner's yelling, Vin's eyes flew open. He whimpered and instinctively moved closer to the gambler.
"Leave him alone, you cretin!" Ezra snarled, his green eyes filled with rage. "He doesn't even realize what's going on."
Skinner continued to study Vin. "He looks like his brains is rattled all right. Think he'll know when they hang 'im?" He grinned maliciously and then stood up and sauntered back to the campfire.
Ezra felt close to despair. He had counted on the tracker to help them get away and had great faith in Vin's survival skills. Instead, everything was up to him now,and he would have to look after Vin. He wasn't accustomed to being responsible for anyone but himself. He wasn't sure that he liked being responsible for someone else. He picked up the canteen and drank thirstily and then held the canteen to Vin's mouth. Vin seemed disinterested in drinking, but Ezra got as much of the water down him as he could, then drank the rest of it himself. Ezra picked up the two biscuits. They were hard and cold, but he could have devoured them both and a dozen more like them. Ezra looked at the biscuits and looked over at Vin.
If I ate both of them, Vin would never know the difference, in his condition.
Temptation warred briefly with conscience before conscience won out. "Open your eyes, Vin. You need to eat this." Ezra held out one of the biscuits.
"Don't want it," Vin mumbled.
Ezra put the biscuit up close to the tracker's mouth. "Eat it."
Vin pushed the gambler's hand away and sat up a little straighter. "No."
"Don't quit on me, Vin. This will help you keep up your strength." He broke off part of the biscuit and put it in the tracker's hand.
Reluctantly, Vin put the biscuit in his mouth and slowly chewed it. When Ezra tried to get him to eat the rest, he refused. "Can't," he whispered. He closed his eyes and drifted off.
Ezra wasn't sure whether the tracker was asleep or unconscious, but it was clear that he wasn't going to eat any more. Forcing himself not to gobble it down, Ezra ate the remainder of the biscuit and the other one that had been left. After eating, Ezra watched as the bounty hunters got out a map, looked at it by the campfire light and argued over which route to take. No one had returned yet to tie them up for the night, and Ezra tried to rouse Vin. He was worried when the tracker failed to respond and shook him lightly.
"Vin, wake up. You have to wake up."
To Ezra's relief, Vin eventually opened his eyes. "Wanta sleep," he muttered.
Ezra was insistent. "You have to stay awake. If you sleep too long, you may not wake up again. Stay awake, Vin."
Vin tried to comply and shifted his body around. The movement caused fierce pain to shoot through his head. He grimaced, grasping his head in both hands and fighting off a wave of nausea. When the pain subsided, he put down his hands and frowned at Ezra. "Where's m'coat?" he mumbled.
"One of the bounty hunters took it. Don't you remember?"
Vin looked bewildered. "I want m'coat."
He struggled to rise and Ezra pushed him back. "That damned coat isn't worth your life."
"It's important ta me," Vin whispered. "Coupla Kiowa women made it fer me when they found out I was leavin'. I was skinny back then so they made it kinda big, figgerin' I'd grow inta it."
"We are still waiting for you to grow into it."
"It ain't just the coat. My harmonica's in the pocket."
Ezra was exasperated. "If we get out of this alive, you can get another harmonica."
Vin scowled. "M'grandpa give me that harmonica." Vin sounded drowsy and his eyelids drooped.
"Keep talking, Vin. Don't go to sleep. As long as you keep talking, you can stay awake. Tell me about your grandfather."
Vin forced his eyes open. "Hard ta do so much talkin'. Ain't used ta it."
"Try. What's your grandfather's name?"
Vin made an effort to stay focused. "Jonas Hollister. Me 'n' my ma went ta live with 'im after my pa disappeared chasin' some outlaws down inta Mexico. My pa was a Texas Ranger name o' Matt Tanner. My ma's name was Molly. Everybody figgered my pa was dead when he didn't come back. Then my ma got sick 'n' died when I'se five, and it was just me 'n' Grandpa." Vin sighed. "I'm tired, Ezra. Don't make me talk no more."
"Don't stop yet. You still haven't told me much about your grandfather."
Vin was silent for a moment and then continued. "Grandpa couldn't read nor write, but he was real good at makin' things. He made me toys an' he told me lotsa stories. There was this big ol' rocker in our cabin that set in front o' the fireplace. At night, he'd hold me on his lap in that rocker an' he'd tell me stories an' I'd usually end up fallin' asleep. He had a huntin' dog named Sam who'd lay there beside us like he was listenin' too." Vin smiled faintly. "He'd rock me an' say I'se his baby, even when I'se too big fer such. Reckon he spoiled me some." He looked at Ezra wearily. "Ain't this enough talkin'?"
"Stay awake just a little longer. Tell me about the harmonica."
"Grandpa give it ta me when I'se eleven. 'Bout five months before he died. He had a bad heart an' it kept gittin' worse 'n' worse. One day, we went inta town an' he saw the doctor, and after he saw the doctor, he had this sad look on 'is face. Then he took me ta the general store there an' told me I could pick out whatever I wanted. I was real s'prised 'cause it weren't my birthday or nothin' an' we didn't usually have much ta spend. I saw this shiny harmonica layin' there an' I told him that's what I wanted. He bought it fer me an' told me he wanted me ta have somethin' ta remember him by. I told him, 'I couldn't ever fergit ya, Grandpa,' an' he got tears in his eyes. I never saw 'im cry before, not even when my ma died. I promised 'im I'd always keep the harmonica." His voice trailed off and his eyes started to close once again. "That's why I gotta git it back."
Ezra looked over at Vin, who was falling asleep. This time he let him rest.
The Next Morning
"Toby," Luther Bolton said, "I want you to ride down into Defiance and get us some more supplies. You do most of the cooking, so you know what we need." He pulled out a bill. "This oughta cover it and you'll probably have a dollar or two left over."
Toby cleared his throat and his prominent adam's apple worked nervously. "Uh, Luther, if there's enough left over, you mind if I git me a woman?"
"Yeah, I mind. I'm expecting you to pick up the supplies, and get your ass right back here."
Skinner's voice took on a whining tone. "But, Luther, they got the cheapest whores 'tween here an' Purgatory, an' it wouldn't take me more'n five minutes ta git laid."
Bolton grabbed the front of Skinner's shirt. "You can get laid when we get to Tascosa. I want you to get the supplies and get back here as quick as you can and no fooling around. You got that?"
"I got it." Sullenly, the bounty hunter put on Vin's jacket, got on his horse and started down into the town below.
Ezra listened to the exchange with a small sense of relief. The other regulators would be looking for them by now, and each delay increased the chance that they would catch up that much sooner. He hoped that Skinner would sucumb to the temptation of cheaply priced prostitutes and be slow in returning. Ezra saw that Bolton was headed toward him. He and Vin had been roused earlier and given some water, but nothing to eat, and he was lightheaded from hunger.
Vin was lying back against the rock with his eyes closed. Ezra had covered him with the threadbare horse blanket which had been their inadequate protection against the chilly night air in the foothills. Bolton thrust aside the blanket, crouched down and began to retie Vin's hands.
Ezra gave him a contemptuous look. "Is that necessary? Surely, you don't think that he could escape in the condition he's in."
"Not likely." Bolton finished with Vin and began to retie Ezra's hands. "He might be able to untie you, though. I'm not worried that you're going to escape, but I don't want you getting hold of a gun and killing me with it."
Ezra felt insulted. "You don't think that I'm capable of escaping?"
Bolton regarded the gambler with cool appraisal. "You might be capable of it, but he's not capable of going with you, and you're not going to leave him behind. Now if I was in the same position you're in, I'd be saving my own skin. It would be the only smart thing to do. I been watching you. You might've been smart once yourself, but you're soft now, and softness ain't gonna do you any good."
Chris, Buck and Josiah rode their horses slowly down the town's dusty main street. Although it was only noon, drunks staggered through the streets or lay passed out in alleys. Music and raucous laughter drifted out of the town's numerous saloons. There were no children or respectable women to be seen. Prostitutes openly sought customers, some of the women hanging out of upper storey windows with bared breasts. Fist fights spilled out of several of the saloons into the street, drawing only slight attention. Rough looking men lounged in doorways, watching the scene with hard, calculating eyes.
"Chris, this is as rough a town as I've ever seen," Buck commented, looking around. "Some of these folks look like they'd cut your throat for a dime."
"More likely a nickel," put in Josiah.
A slatternly woman in stained finery grabbed Josiah's leg and began stroking his upper thigh. She glanced from him to Buck and smiled widely, showing several missing teeth. "Two for the price of one," she offered.
"Not lookin' for bargain
today, sister," Josiah replied, barely giving the woman a glance and moving on.
"Where d'you wanta start, Chris?" Buck asked. "If Bolton and the others have been through here, I get the feelin' we're either gonna hafta pay for the truth or else beat it outa somebody."
"We'll pay for it if we have to," Chris answered, "but I'm more in the mood to beat it out of somebody. We'll start at this end of town and hit the saloons one by one, then we'll check the..." he broke off as he spotted Toby Skinner in Vin's jacket. The bounty hunter was coming out of the town's general store, carrying a sack of supplies which he tied to the pommel of his saddle. Buck and Josiah saw the man almost as soon as Chris did, but Chris had already spurred his horse forward, with the other two men following right behind him. Reaching the bounty hunter, he leaped from his horse, grabbed the man from behind and spun him around. Chris's fist crashed into Skinner's face, and he tumbled to the ground.
"Ya broke my nose," Skinner moaned, gingerly covering his face with both hands. "What d'ya think yer doin', Mister?"
Chris drew his gun and pointed it at the bounty hunter. "Where the hell did you get that coat you're wearin'?"
"It's mine," Skinner blustered. "Feller give it ta me. Said he wanted me ta have it."
Chris positioned his gun at Skinner's temple. "Tell me the truth or I'll blow your worthless head off."
"I told ya the truth. He give..." Skinner broke off as Chris cocked his pistol. Skinner nervously licked his lips and his eyes darted about seeking an escape that wasn't there. "All right, I'll tell ya how I come by it. Ain't no coat worth gittin' killed over."
Chris relaxed slightly. He pulled Skinner's gun from its holster and handed it up to Buck and then hauled the other man to his feet. "Talk," he ordered.
"I ain't done nothin' wrong. I took this here jacket off a killer named Tanner. I'm a bounty hunter and there's a bounty on Tanner. He ain't gonna be needin' this jacket no more."
"Are you sayin' he's dead?" The look on Chris's face terrified Skinner.
"No, no! He's alive...him and the gambler feller that was with 'im, but we's takin' him ta Tascosa ta be hung. Might not live long enough ta git there though, way he looked when I left. Tanner mean somethin' to ya?"
Josiah and Buck exchanged worried glances, while Chris's lethal expression never changed. "He means plenty to me. He's one of my men. What's wrong with him?"
"One o' my partners sorta cracked 'is skull."
"What's the name of the one who cracked Tanner's skull?"
"Watts, Floyd Watts. I'm partners with him an' Luther Bolton. My name's Toby Skinner. I didn't do nothin' ta Tanner. It was all Floyd. There ain't a bit o' harm in me. I treated him good an' the other one too." Chris's eyes glinted dangerously. "Shut up, you lyin' piece o' shit and take off that coat."
Skinner hastily moved to comply, and Chris snatched the coat away from him.
"Where're you holdin' my men?" Chris demanded.
"Up in the hills above town. They sent me down here ta git supplies." He continued in an aggrieved voice. "I wanted ta git me a woman while I'se here. I ain't had a woman in a long time, but Luther said..."
Chris jerked Skinner forward by the front of his shirt. "I don't give a rat's ass about that. You're goin' to take us to where you're holdin' my men. Now get on your horse."
The bounty hunter looked desperate as he climbed into the saddle. "But Floyd an' Luther might kill me for takin' you to 'em."
Buck spoke up. "It ain't like you got a choice."
Reluctantly, Skinner led the way to the bounty hunters' camp. Leaving their horses behind, the three men and the bounty hunter climbed the rocky ledge overlooking the camp.
In the bright sunlight, Chris squinted as he studied the scene. The other two bounty hunters were standing together talking. Ezra and Vin were seated on the ground, up against a boulder. They were too far away for Chris to determine much about their condition.
Chris turned to Josiah. "Josiah, Buck an' me are goin' to get closer. You stay here with Skinner and watch him."
Josiah nodded. Chris and Buck, crouching down, edged their way closer.
Uneasily, Skinner looked around. After climbing to the top of the ledge, they had tied his hands, tied his bandana around his mouth and then seated him on the ground. He couldn't yell to alert his partners, but maybe he could loosen some rocks and alert his partners that way. He looked at Josiah, who had turned his attention to the scene below. Deciding to take a chance, he pushed himself to his feet and kicked hard at some small rocks. The rocks started to fall and the bounty hunters looked up, automatically drawing their guns. Josiah swung the stock of his rifle and caught Skinner on the side of the head. Skinner lost his balance and tumbled down the cliff, landing at the bottom with his neck bent at a strange angle.
Buck swore as one of the bounty hunters' bullets narrowly missed his head and sharp slivers of rock peppered his face. Chris's gun spat fire in return and Luther Bolton sank to his knees.
"Nice shot, Stud," Buck congratulated him, giving Chris an approving slap on the butt. "Seems like old times, don't it?"
Chris grunted a response, intent upon taking out the other man below. Weaving his way in and out of rocks, Floyd Watts was moving toward the captives. Ezra had looked up immediately when the rockslide began, but Vin had shown no awareness.
"We gotta get him, Buck," Chris urged, "before he has a chance to use Vin or Ezra as a shield."
"Let's do it," Buck replied. They fired a barrage of bullets toward the bounty hunter, but the rocks made an effective barrier and none of the bullets found its mark. From his higher vantage point, Josiah had a better angle and began firing, forcing the bounty hunter to briefly move into the open as he sought better protection. Chris and Buck took advantage of the situation to fire another barrage toward their target. Watts was hit and staggered backwards, falling into the ravine.
"Looks like it's over," Buck said grimly. He clapped Chris on the shoulder. "Let's go down and see about our pards."
Chris and Buck swiftly climbed down to discover Luther Bolton still breathing, blood pumping from his midsection. His gun had fallen from his hand, and Buck kicked it a safe distance away.
Bolton's eyes were open, and he clutched his abdomen. He looked up at the two men standing over him. "Not going to make it, am I?" he wheezed.
"No," Chris answered bluntly. "You're gut shot."
"You're a cold one," he gasped.
Chris's eyes were hard. "You mistreated my men, and you were takin' one of 'em to be hung. You got what you deserve."
Josiah had climbed down the hillside and joined them.
"See to him, Josiah," Chris said. He and Buck headed over to check on the captives.
Josiah crouched beside the dying bounty hunter. "Do you want me to pray for you?" he offered.
Blood was trickling from Bolton's mouth. "Go to hell," he gurgled.
"I'm afraid that's where you're goin', brother," Josiah responded, watching the bounty hunter's sightless eyes glaze over.
Ezra had succeeded in getting to his feet. He wore a broad, relieved smile and his green eyes sparkled. "Gentlemen, you all are a most welcome sight," he greeted Chris and Buck.
"Ezra, are you all right?" Buck asked, using his knife to slice through the ropes on the gambler's raw, chafed wrists.
"Aside from hunger, thirst and countless cuts and bruises...yes." He looked down at Vin. "I can't say the same for Mr. Tanner."
Chris was kneeling beside the motionless tracker. Vin's face was smudged with dirt, and there were dark circles beneath his closed eyes. His breathing was so shallow that, for a heartstopping moment, Chris feared that his breathing had ceased. Chris's knife cut through the ropes binding the tracker's slender wrists together. So great was the gunslinger's relief at finding his friend alive, that he had an almost overwhelming and completely unprecedented urge to seize Vin in a fierce hug and even plant a kiss on top of the tousled brown hair. Chris smiled inwardly at the thought of Vin's outraged response to such a move and at how astonished the other men would be. He put a hand to Vin's cheek, wiping away a smudge of dirt with his thumb. "Vin...Vin," he said softly.
Vin flinched and his eyes opened. The eyes were vividly blue in his dirty face, but their expression was blank.
"Vin, how do you feel?" Chris asked, his face reflecting his concern.
Vin's brow furrowed, and he put a hand to his head. "Head hurts," he whispered. A semblance of awareness dawned in his eyes. Another whisper, "Chris? It's really you?"
Chris smiled. "Yeah, it's really me."
Josiah came over. "The bounty hunter's dead," he announced. He smiled at Ezra. "I'm thankful to see you're still with us, Ezra." He looked down at Vin, taking in his condition. "I think we need to get Vin out of the sun."
Buck looked around the bleak landscape. "Chris, there's a little shade under the shadow of that overhangin' rock over there. Let's get him moved to there."
Chris regarded Vin doubtfully. "Can you stand up?"
Vin grimaced as pain throbbed in his head. "Ain't sure," he whispered.
With Chris's help, he slowly got to his feet, but his knees promptly buckled. Chris effortlessly picked up the scrawny tracker in his arms, carried him to the overhanging rock and carefully placed him on the ground. Chris had expected some protest from Vin at being carried, but surmised that he was either too weak or too out of it to care.
Ezra settled on the ground beside Vin. Josiah brought over two canteens and offered one to Ezra, along with a strip of beef jerky. He drank greedily until Josiah stopped him.
"It's goin' to make you sick if you drink too much too fast, Ezra," Josiah cautioned. "Better take it slow."
Ezra reluctantly put down the canteen and began chewing on the beef jerky instead. "The bastards wouldn't give us enough to drink. They took pleasure in satisfying their own thirst and making us watch."
Chris had taken the other canteen and wet his bandana with it. He wiped Vin's face with the bandana and then held the canteen to Vin's mouth. "Drink this," he instructed. The tracker acted disinterested at first and then grabbed the canteen with both hands and began to gulp the water until Chris pulled it out of his hands. Vin looked at him in confusion, and then hopeless resignation settled over his face. Chris felt his anger kindle as he divined Vin's thoughts.
He thinks he's still being denied water out of sheer meanness, like the bounty hunters did with him.
Chris tried to reassure him. "You're free now, Vin. You're with me and Buck and Josiah. I'll give you more water as soon as I think you can handle it." Vin looked dazed, and Chris didn't know if he had understood him or not. He examined the back of the tracker's head, seeing the dried blood matted in his hair.
Buck had been watching silently. Now he spoke up. "What d'you wanta do, Chris, with the bounty hunters' bodies? Looks like Skinner broke his neck when he fell."
Chris looked over in Skinner's direction, and an unreadable expression briefly crossed his face. He looked back at Buck. "Throw 'em over the side, and leave 'em for the vultures."
"Watts is the one who already went over the side. That son of a bitch would make a fitting meal for the vultures," Ezra said bitterly.
Buck and Josiah drug the two bodies over to the edge of the ravine and rolled them off, noticing that Watts hadn't fallen all the way down into the ravine, but had landed on a ledge and lay in a pool of blood. It seemed to Buck that he detected a slight movement from the bounty hunter. He squinted, but couldn't be certain that his eyes hadn't deceived him. "Chris, come over here," he said. Chris got up and walked over to where Buck stood and looked down. "You think there's any chance he could still be alive?" Buck asked.
Chris looked at Watts's body for a long moment. "Nah. Don't see how he could be with all the bullet holes that must be in him." He turned his attention away from the bounty hunter. "Buck, you and Josiah bring our horses around. Get that sack of supplies that Skinner picked up in town. Check the bounty hunters' saddlebags for anything else useful, and be sure to get Vin's spyglass. You can let their horses go. We're not stayin' here tonight. There's hours of daylight left to find a place to camp."
Josiah and Buck returned, leading their horses and Chris's horse. "That bounty hunter stocked up pretty good in Defiance," Buck said. "We'll probably have enough provisions to last us till Eagle Bend."
"Put the supplies on Vin's horse," Chris instructed. "There's no way Vin's goin' to be able to ride alone."
When they were ready to leave, Buck lifted Vin up to the front of Chris's saddle. Buck was concerned by how light the limp body felt. "This boy musta lost some weight he couldn't afford to lose," he commented.
"Expect he did," Chris answered, leading the way as they started back.
They had been on the trail for about an hour when a considerably restored Ezra rode up beside Chris. He looked over at Vin. "How is he doing, Chris?"
"Keeps driftin' in and out, but even when his eyes are open, I don't think he knows where he is." He shifted Vin to a more comfortable position against his shoulder, and Vin mumbled something unintelligible.
"I remembered what Nathan said about head injuries. I tried to keep him awake as much as possible to keep him from slipping into unconsciousness."
"He might not have made it without you. Reckon he owes you."
Ezra flashed a grin. "Rest assured, Mr. Larabee, that I will see to it that Vin pays me back out of his meager earnings every time I can get him in a card game." He sighed. "What I would give right now to be sitting at a card table with a winning hand and a fine cigar, after having had the benefit of a hot bath, a shave and some clean clothes."
Chris gave Ezra an appraising glance. A woman might have described the gambler as still being ruggedly handsome with his facial stubble and dirty, disheveled clothes. To Chris, he merely looked the way a man ought to look after several days on the trail. "For once, Ezra, you look like you belong with the rest of us, instead of lookin' like some dandy with lace on his drawers."
"Looking like the rest of you is hardly a reassuring thought, Mr. Larabee. I think I will go have a word with Mr. Sanchez. Perhaps he will have something more uplifting to say." Ezra turned his horse and rode back to the other regulators.
It was late afternoon when Buck pulled his horse up beside Chris to again check on the tracker. "Vin still asleep?"
"For now," Chris answered. "He wakes up every now and then. Considerin' what an independent cuss he is, I thought he might complain about ridin' with me, but he's hardly said a word about anything."
"He looks poorly to me, Chris."
"Yeah, I know. I keep givin' him water, but we need to get some food in him to help him get his strength back. I tried to get him to eat some jerky, but he wouldn't have it, and it's not what he needs anyway. He needs some hot food that's easy to swallow. I'm anxious to get him to the doctor in Eagle Bend, but he don't need to be jolted any more than necessary by ridin' too fast."
"Think I'll ride up ahead and see if I can locate us a place to stop for the night. It won't be dark for awhile yet, but Vin probably needs to rest and him and Ezra both could use some hot food."
"Right," Chris agreed.
Buck found a location that had a cold, underground spring, a sparse outcropping of grass for the horses and enough sticks for firewood. After leading the others to the site, Buck dismounted and went over to lift Vin down out of the saddle. He carried him over to where Josiah had placed a blanket on the ground and carefully sat him down with his back braced against a rock.
Vin stirred a little and opened his eyes.
"Atta boy. Stay awake now," Buck encouraged, giving him a pat on the shoulder. "Ol' Buck's gonna see about gettin' you somethin' ta eat." While Josiah and Ezra gathered sticks and started a fire, Buck unsaddled the horses and opened some cans of beef stew taken from the bounty hunters.
Chris filled a canteen with cold water from the spring and gave Vin a drink. He wet one of the bandages, which Nathan had insisted they bring, and wiped Vin's face and hands with it. He then set about cleaning and bandaging the tracker's chafed wrists. He wet one of the bandages again and began cleaning the dried blood from Vin's hair.
While the food was being heated, Buck came over. "It would be easier, Pard, just ta cut off some of his hair."
"He wouldn't like that, Buck." Chris continued to clean the matted strands of hair with uncharacteristic patience.
Buck clapped Chris on the shoulder. "While you're doin' that, I'm gonna see if the food is ready."
Chris nodded and continued with his task, using painstaking care not to pull Vin's hair. Vin remained perfectly docile during Chris's attentions, which made Chris's task easier, but he found the docility worrisome. He was finished by the time Buck returned with a tin cup filled with coffee and a tin plate of beef stew.
"I put plenty of sugar in the coffee. Thought it might perk him up some," Buck said, handing the cup to Chris.
Vin was sitting back with his eyes closed. Chris touched him on the shoulder and his eyes flickered open. "I want you to drink this, Vin," Chris said. "Oughta make you feel better. It's hot, so I'll hold it for you and make sure you don't spill it." Vin drank the coffee... slowly at first, then more eagerly. The coffee seemed to give Vin some energy and he sat up straighter. "Now I want you to eat some of this," Chris said, putting aside the empty cup and taking the plate of stew from Buck.
Vin responded by turning his head.
"C'mon, Vin," Buck coaxed, "just try one spoonful."
Chris put a spoon in Vin's hand and curled the tracker's fingers around it. Vin looked down at the spoon, but made no effort to eat.
Chris took the spoon away from him, dipped up a small amount of the stew and held the spoon up to Vin's mouth. "Eat it," he ordered.
After a moment's hesitation, Vin took the spoonful, chewed and swallowed it.
"We better wait a minute ta make sure it stays down," Buck cautioned.
"Yeah, we'll have to take it slow." Chris waited before offering the tracker another spoonful.
"Wish I had some of that good Mexican food that Inez fixes," Buck commented. "You think she's missin' ol' Buck by now?"
"I doubt it."
Taking time between each spoonful, Chris fed Vin more of the stew, being cautious about giving him too much.
"You done good, son," Buck said, when Vin was finished. He smiled and gave the tracker a light, approving touch on the top of his head. "But you look plumb wore out. I think it's past your bedtime." Vin was clearly exhausted.
"I'll get more blankets," Chris said, "and we'll make him as comfortable as we can." Chris left and returned with two more blankets. He folded one of them, and Buck placed it beneath the tracker's head while Chris covered Vin with the other blanket. Chris dropped his own bed roll nearby. "I'm goin' to get some of the stew," he told Buck. "When we turn in, you can take first watch and I'll take the second. Tomorrow night, Josiah and Ezra can stand watch."
"Fine by me, Pard," Buck responded.
Dawn was still several hours away. The night was quiet except for the call of an occasional night bird and Josiah's and Buck's snores. Seated on a rock, Chris puffed on a cigar and gazed up at the stars.
Are you up there somewhere, Sarah? Are you, Adam? Are you up there, Ma and Pa and Caleb? I don't know what to believe in anymore.
Behind him, Vin moved restlessly. Despite his exhaustion, Vin wasn't resting well. Chris watched him.
What is it about you, Vin, that makes me think of my brother? You're not much like him, except that I think you'd follow me anywhere, just like he would, and you look at me with the same trust in your eyes that he had.
Vin groaned and gave a muffled cry. Chris threw down his cigar and quickly strode over to him. Vin sat up. In the flickering firelight, he could see that Vin's eyes were wide with alarm. Vin looked about wildly. "They're goin' ta hang me," he gasped.
Chris knelt and put his arm around Vin's shoulders. "Nobody's goin' to hang you, Vin. I won't let 'em." Vin's body was tense, and he was breathing rapidly. "The bounty hunters are dead, and we're takin' you home." He rubbed Vin's back reassuringly until he felt him relax. When Vin's eyes began to close, Chris eased him down to his blanket, and he drifted off to sleep.
It was early morning, and the regulators were only hours away from Eagle Bend. Vin's confusion, caused by the concussion, had cleared up and the nausea had lessened, but the severe headaches, blurred vision and dizziness were little improved. Vin sat on a fallen log, wearing a disgruntled expression, and watched his friends saddle their horses. He and Peso had been left out of the process.
"Don't see why I gotta still ride with you," he grumbled to Chris.
Chris fastened the cinch of his saddle. "You don't. You can ride with Buck or Josiah or Ezra. Take your pick."
"That ain't the point an' you know it. I wanta ride m'own horse."
"Vin, you showed how good you could ride by tryin' to get on Ezra's horse. You couldn't even get your butt in the saddle."
"It'd be different if I had Peso," he stubbornly insisted.
"Peso would be likely to buck you off right on your head. Your head is damned hard, Vin, but not hard enough to get cracked again. You can stop sulkin'. You're goin' to have to ride with one of us."
"I ain't sulkin'! I think ya oughta show a little more respect fer yer second in command."
"You keep actin' childish and you're gonna be my seventh in command." Chris looked around and saw that the others were already mounted. "C'mon, it's time to go."
Vin gave an unhappy sigh but allowed Chris to boost him up into the saddle. Chris swung up behind him.
They rode for several miles in silence, before Vin spoke quietly. "I didn't mean ta act ungrateful, Chris. I ain't thanked you or Ezra proper for what y'all done fer me, or Buck and Josiah. Instead, I been actin' kinda surly."
"We know how you feel, Vin. You've been cranky 'cause your head hurts, and you're not used to havin' to depend on somebody else. We all understand that."
"No. It ain't right. M'grandpa didn't bring me up ta act like this. He let me git away with a lot, but he woulda blistered my butt fer actin' unmannerly. Hell, I ain't never really apologized fer actin' like a fool with Charlotte. Reckon I was thinkin' with my johnson 'stead o' my brain."
"Reckon you were, but I done that a few times myself."
They rode on in comfortable silence for a few minutes before Vin spoke again. "You was probably right about me not ridin' Peso. Not sure I coulda stayed on 'im if I got dizzy or he started actin' up. Your horse rides real easy."
"Yeah. Reminds me of the first horse I ever had. I was six, and my three older brothers and my older sister had already picked out the best of our horses. Wasn't much to choose from when I was old enough to ride, so me and my little brother and little sister had to take what was left. I wound up with Belle, our main plow horse. She was old and swaybacked, but calm and gentle. As soon as I learned to ride her, my brother Caleb wanted to ride too, so I'd let him climb up in front of me or else hang on to me from the back, and we'd go ridin' together."
"You told me once that I put ya in mind o' him. He look anythin' like me?"
"No, he didn't look anything like you, but we always had an understandin' between us, somethin' like you and me. Whatever I did, he was ready to go along with it. I got us both into trouble plenty of times, but we had a hell of a good time growin' up together. Our pa was kinda strict, and he'd tan our britches, but even that didn't matter." He paused and took a deep breath. "I was so happy most of the time when I was a kid, it seemed like it wouldn't ever end, but then Caleb got killed and nothing was the same again. Caleb was a good rider, but his horse threw him and he broke his neck. As far back as I could remember, I'd looked after him and tried to protect him, but I couldn't protect him from this. Neither one of us wanted to stay on the farm when we grew up, and we used to talk about gettin' out of Indiana, seein' different places and bein' adventurous. I wound up havin' the adventures with Buck instead. We've had our share of fights, but Buck's been like a brother to me ever since I first knew him."
Vin smothered a yawn with his hand. "Damn, Cowboy, yer longwinded today, but I'm glad ya told me about yer brother. Wish I'd had a brother like ya did," he said drowsily. His head drooped against Chris's shoulder. The concussion had made him tire easily, and the relaxed heaviness of the tracker's body told Chris that he had fallen asleep. The gunslinger looked down at Vin, seeing the long lashes that created shadows on his cheeks. The sight reminded Chris of both Adam and Caleb and, unconsciously, his grip tightened on the tracker.
After coming down out of the hills, the land had become flat and open, enabling all of the regulators to ride alongside each other. As they grew closer to Eagle Bend, Ezra positioned himself between Chris and Buck with Josiah on the opposite side of Chris. Ezra moved his horse closer to Chris.
"Uh, Mr. Larabee, I wonder if I could have a few words with you."
Chris gave him the skeptical look that he seemed to reserve solely for the gambler. "Your words ain't never few, Ezra, but say what's on your mind."
"Well, as you can see, my clothes are virtually in tatters, and I need to get some new ones when we reach Eagle Bend. What funds I had with me went with that bounty hunter Watts when he fell into the ravine. I asked Buck and Josiah to advance me a loan, but I failed to convince them that I was good for it."
Buck was listening closely. "Once burned, twice shy, Ezra"
"Buck, I can explain what happened before..."
Chris broke in. "I'll loan you the money."
"You will? I hardly expected you to agree so easily and be this understanding."
"Understandin's got nothin' to do with it. I just don't want you embarrassin' the rest of us by walkin' around Eagle Bend with a hole in the seat of your pants."
Ezra looked chagrined. "You mean to say that my backside is visible?"
"Nope. Just the crack."
Ezra felt behind him for the rip in his pants. "I had detected a slight breeze."
Chris's grin was unsympathetic. "Relax, Ezra. This might make you more popular with the ladies in Eagle Bend."
Buck moved in closer to Ezra. "Let me check it out, Pard," he said helpfully. Buck reached for the loose flap of material, dangling by only a few threads. He gave it a quick tug and held up a sizeable chunk of cloth. "Aw, look at that! I guess they don't make pants like they used to."
"That's not amusing, Mr. Wilmington. I insist that you lend me your coat."
Buck shook his head. "Sorry, Ezra. I don't think my coat's the right color for you."
Ezra looked past Chris to Josiah. "Mr. Sanchez?"
"Neither a borrower, nor a lender be," Josiah piously intoned.
Ezra looked over at Vin. Despite the summer heat, Vin was sleeping contentedly in his buckskin jacket. "Surely, Mr. Tanner will..."
Chris raised an eyebrow. "You really think Vin's goin' to let go of that coat of his now that he has it back?"
"No," Ezra admitted glumly. "Well, if all else fails, I suppose that I can hide my posterior with my hat."
Buck grinned. "Not if you ain't got a hat." He reached over and snatched the hat off of the gambler's head and then kicked his horse into a gallop.
"BUCK! COME BACK HERE, BUCK!" Ezra yelled, kicking his own horse into a gallop and giving chase.
The noise woke Vin. He opened drowsy blue eyes and sat up.
"We'll be in Eagle Bend soon," Chris told him.
"Rather go see Nettie than stop in Eagle Bend."
"I'm sure you would, but I want the doctor there to examine you. Then I expect Nathan will want you to stay in his clinic for a few days."
"Aw, hell! Why'd ya hafta say that? Nathan'll probably tell me that I gotta take it easy and just sit around on my tail for days doin' nothin'."
"If Nathan tells you to do nothin' but sit on your tail, then that's what you're goin' to do."
Vin was quiet for a moment, then the corners of his mouth turned up in a smile. He patted his coat pocket. "One good thing about it. It'll give me more time ta play my harmonica."
"Damn, Vin! I wish I'd thrown that thing away when I had the chance."
"Yer jealous 'cause ya can't play as good as me."
"I can't play at all and neither can you."
Vin looked smug. "Yer a bitter man, Cowboy, just 'cause ya ain't got my musical talent."
Chris snorted. "Your horse has as much musical talent as you do."
"That's another thing, Larabee. Yer jealous, ain't ya, 'cause yer horse ain't as purty as Peso, or as smart, or as..."
"Shut up, Tanner."
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