If Memory Serves

by Heather Hillsden

Part One

The man in buckskins whistled tunelessly as he rode across the lush green grassland, seemingly without a care in the world. A battered grey cavalry hat was perched on his long tousled hair, keeping the sun from his eyes, and an amused expression was fixed upon his tanned face as the big black quarter horse between his knees swivelled its ears backwards and forwards at him, almost as though it were listening to the discordant notes. However, the pack mule at the end of the lead rein clutched in the man’s left hand showed no interest at all.

The sun had climbed partway across the sky, warming the land and nourishing the new spring growth as Vin Tanner rode towards the town of Four Corners, a town which he had come to regard as home. ‘Home’ - it still felt strange to say it, to think of it that way. Stranger still to realise that he had finally put down some roots, even though he still had the need to get away once in a while and roam the countryside on his own. It was a habit the young tracker couldn't shake, this primal urge, the need to be alone from time to time, but thankfully it was something his friends respected, even if they didn't fully understand it. Still, it would be good to get back. Even though he wouldn’t openly admit it to anyone, he missed the companionship his friends offered.

Suddenly his thoughts were ripped apart by the sharp crack of a rifle, the harsh sound shattering the stillness around him, and he brought his mount to a stop, twisting round in the saddle as he listened carefully. Before the echo of the first shot had died away, he heard the lighter crackle of handguns fairly close by, and he kneed his horse into a fast lope. Relinquishing the lead rein as the mule baulked, he pulled the Winchester rifle from the saddle boot as he urged the big black up the incline towards the main trail that he had abandoned some hours earlier in his hunt for breakfast.

As he topped the rise he slowed his horse, caution tempering his actions as he stood in the stirrups and studied the scene below him with rising anger. A stagecoach was halted on the road, the offside lead horse kicking spasmodically as it lay in the dirt, its lifeblood slowly seeping away. The driver and guard were crouched on the top seat, firing at the group of men bearing down on them.

As Vin touched spurs to his mount and sent it plunging down the slope towards the stricken stage he counted six attackers, with bandanas pulled up to hide their faces. Guiding the black with his knees, he snapped off three quick shots, the bullets kicking up dust just ahead of the racing gang. The driver threw a quick glance over his shoulder as he heard the pounding of hooves and the gunfire behind him, then turned back when he realised the newcomer was on their side.

As he drew alongside the stage, the tracker saw one of the men bring his horse to a rump-scraping halt, and bring a rifle up to his shoulder. He saw the smoke spurt from the muzzle and heard the driver give a sharp cry, as he jerked upright and pitched sideways from the top of the stage. Slipping from his black, Vin gave the animal a slap across the rump, sending it back out of harms way as he dropped to one knee and brought his own Winchester up, sighting carefully along the barrel. He squeezed the trigger, and knew instinctively that the shot had found its mark. One of the men slumped across his horse's neck and would have fallen if the man with the rifle hadn't reached out and dragged him back into the saddle.

Vin and the guard followed up on their advantage, loosing off a volley of shots that further spooked the already nervous horses ridden by the would-be robbers. Realising that the tide had turned against them with the timely arrival of the tracker, the man with the rifle gathered up the reins of the wounded man's horse and turned back down the trail, the other four close behind him.

"Mister, yer sure a sight for sore eyes! I thought we was goners for sure."

The guard made his heartfelt comment as he climbed down to join Vin as he squatted beside the luckless driver.

"It didn't do him much good," the tracker stated, closing the man's sightless eyes.

"Goddammit!" the guard swore, then straightened and poked his head through the coach window. "How're yer doing, folks? Everybody okay?"

A chorus of assents came from the three passengers inside, and the man turned back to Tanner. "I'd be obliged if you'd ride along with us to the next way station."

"Sure. Just let me get my horse and mule."

Leaving the guard and one of the male passengers to load the driver's body inside, Vin pulled out his knife, and cut away the traces that were tangled around the mortally wounded coach horse. Pulling a grimace at the needless waste, he used his hand-gun to put the stricken animal out of its suffering before going to collect his own mount where it stood a little way up the trail, halted by the trailing reins. He mounted the black gelding and rode back up the incline, finding his pack mule nonchalantly cropping the grass as though it hadn’t had a decent meal in years. Snatching up the trailing rope, Vin rode back and fastened both animals to the rear of the stage, before climbing up on the box beside the guard, his Winchester cradled in the crook of his arm.

"All set, young fellar?"

Without waiting for a reply the guard flicked the whip over the backs of the remaining three-horse team, steering them around the already cooling body of the other horse.

Vin sighed. So much for his uneventful trip home.

+ + + + + + +

Doug McKenna was an angry man; angry with himself, angry with his brothers, and angry with the stranger whose name he didn't know - yet.

It was anger that had brought him to this juncture in his life, although he would be the last person to admit it. Just over a year ago McKenna and his two younger brothers had been working on a large ranch in the Panhandle area of Northern Texas. The work had been hard and the pay good, but that had been snatched from their grasp when Doug McKenna had allowed his fiery temper to get the better of him, and he had beaten the ranch wrangler half to death over a local saloon girl. The ranch owner, a wealthy and well respected man, had fired him on the spot and, once the word had gone around, no-one else was willing to hire the McKenna brothers.

Pooling their meagre savings, the brothers had headed south, but the work did not pay as well. Down on their luck and broke, they had robbed a freight wagon, killing the wagon master's wife in the process, and the die had been cast. Joining up with three other hard cases, they had started calling themselves 'The McKenna Gang', and progressed to holding up stage coaches. Money, whiskey, and women had suddenly been in plentiful supply, and everything had gone smoothly for them.

Until now.

Now, thanks to the intervention of the hard-riding, fast-shooting, buckskin-clad stranger, the easy pickings had eluded them and Jace McKenna was dead. Doug had held his brother in the saddle after the stranger's bullet had made a bloody mess of his chest, but the younger man had died a few hours later, and they had buried him in an unmarked grave, swearing vengeance for their loss.


The sudden shout startled the youngest of the McKenna’s. He and the other three men had kept their distance from Doug, knowing how volatile he could be when he was angry; no one, not even a family member, was safe from his temper.

"Yeah, Doug?"

Travis McKenna was young, with the blond-haired, blue-eyed good looks that could charm the birds out of the trees. But a year of living on the run had left its mark; the mouth didn't smile as readily as it once had, and there was a hardness to the eyes that hinted at cruelty. For all that, he was still afraid of his oldest brother, but he tried not to show it.

"I've got a job for you."

Doug draped his arm around the young man's shoulder, a wolfish grin parting his lips as he felt the other flinch at the touch, and he walked him away from the camp and down towards the creek.

"What are we gonna do about the bastard who killed Jace?"

The older McKenna chuckled.

"You read my mind," he stated, swinging Travis round to face him, and dropping both hands on his brother's shoulders. "I want you to take Curly, and ride to the way station at Indian Springs."

"What for?"

"I want you to find out all you can about that guy in the buckskins. Who he is - where he comes from. D'you think you can do that?"

Doug tilted his head on one side and studied his kid brother for a moment. Travis was a bit hot-headed at times, but he could usually be relied upon to follow his orders.

"Yeah, but - "

"When you find out I want you to come straight back here. Understood?"

Travis glared at him truculently.

"I guess, but Jace - "

"Jace'll have company real soon. Okay?"

Doug patted him on the shoulder, and then watched as he spoke to one of the others, and both men climbed into their saddles, spurring their horses up along the trail towards Indian Springs.

+ + + + + + +

Life in Four Corners was going about its daily business with boring normality, but JD Dunne was a worried young man.

Ever since he had rashly accepted the post as Peacekeeper of the small, but burgeoning, township he had been able to handle every problem that had come along - with a little help from his friends! But the latest wire he'd received from the Governor’s office had him concerned, and he didn't know why.

There had been a spate of stage hold-ups in the area over the last few months, and the last one had claimed the lives of three people. All law enforcement officers were being advised to warn the freight and stage companies in their jurisdiction about the danger. JD had already been to the freight and stage offices, and the people in charge had assured him that any valuable shipments would be dealt with in the strictest confidence. So why did he feel uneasy?

He shrugged it off. He wasn’t normally prone to premonitions – leave that to Josiah or Vin – and, with the exception of the absent tracker, Chris and the others were happily settled in the saloon, making the most of the tranquillity that had fallen over the town. Maybe it was the unusual calm that was getting to him. Hell, things hadn’t been this quiet in a long time, so maybe he should just follow the example of the others, and take advantage of the break.

He glanced up at the clock on the wall of the jail. Time to make his rounds, and maybe shake a few of the sluggards out of the saloon to join him. Picking up his hat, he placed it firmly on his head and stepped out onto the sidewalk, pulling the door shut behind him.


He spun around as his name was called, and a smile lit up his face.

"Vin! When did you get back?"

There was no disguising his pleasure. Vin Tanner was one of his closest friends, and he missed the Texan when he went off on his little excursions.

"About twenty minutes ago," the tracker replied, coming up alongside the young peacekeeper and dropping a hand on his shoulder. "Just been getting my horse bedded down." He glanced around. "How’s things?"

"Quiet as a grave," JD told him. "I’m just about to make my rounds. Care to join me? We’ll swing by the saloon on the way. Chris and the others are there."

"Fine." Vin nodded. "I could use a drink."

As they walked they talked, and JD heard about the tracker’s encounter with the would-be stage robbers, and how the man in charge of the way station had persuaded Vin to accompany the stage on to its final destination.

"I’d’ve been back yesterday if it hadn’t been for that," Tanner concluded, as they approached the saloon.

"Well, you probably saved some lives if it’s the gang I was wired about," JD told him. "They’ve been pretty busy lately. Killed three people on the last robbery."

As they crossed the street Vin, ever vigilant, saw something that caused him to frown in consternation. Two horses stood hip-shot at the hitching rail outside the saloon – one black, and one bright bay – and they looked vaguely familiar, but he didn’t know why. Even as he worried at the thought, two men came from the saloon and unfastened the animals’ reins. One man was stocky and slightly balding, and the other was young, little older than JD, with hair the colour of corn.

"Hey, mister. Wait up a min - "

Lost in thought, Vin started as JD called out, and surprise flashed on the face of the younger man as he swung round to face them. For a brief moment he and the tracker gazed into each other’s eyes, then the young man glanced at JD – and at the badge pinned on JD’s coat! His hand dipped towards his gun-belt, and before the startled peacekeeper could act, the blond youngster’s gun was out and coming up into a firing position!

Two things kept the young peacekeeper alive that day - Vin's instincts, and his quick reactions.

"JD – look out!"

Yelling a warning, the tracker thrust out his hand, and sent his companion staggering away, out of the line of fire.

For all that, JD came close to dying!

Flame ripped from the barrel of the gun, but Vin had his own weapon drawn now, and he didn’t hesitate. His single shot took the blond right between the eyes, and he was dead before his body hit the ground. The second man started to reach for his own weapon but, seeing the sudden flurry of activity as four men erupted from the saloon, decided that discretion - and flight - was the better part of valour. He swung into the saddle of the black gelding and raked his spurs along its side, crouching low over its neck as it took off like a startled pronghorn. The bay reared, dragging its reins free and blocking Vin’s line of fire as it galloped off after the black.

"Aw Hell!" Vin hissed in frustration, as he holstered his gun and squatted on his heels by the man he had just shot down. The boy was barely older than JD, and the Texan regretted the senseless waste of life. But the blond youngster had placed his feet on the slippery downhill lawless trail, and he had paid the ultimate penalty. Pushing himself to his feet, the tracker rounded on his friend. "What the Hell were you doing, JD? Trying to get yourself killed?"

The young peacekeeper turned a white face to him.

"His horse… " he murmured.

"What about his horse?"

"It looked like it was about to throw a shoe. I was gonna warn him."

Vin blew out his cheeks, stunned by the naivety of the young man’s comment. "Well, innocent as a preacher look’s or guilty as sin, you should never – " He paused, and a frown creased his brow. "JD? You alright?"

The young peacekeeper had started to reach for the gun dropped by the dead man, when he gasped in pain and stopped, clutching at his side. Vin turned him around, and saw the blood seeping through his fingers and trickling down across the back of his hand.

"Son of a bitch!" he muttered, the reprimand dying on his lips, and he raised his voice in a yell as he glanced around anxiously. "Nathan! JD’s been hit."

The four men from the saloon pushed through the gathering crowd and clustered around them, and Vin stepped back as Nathan Jackson appeared from across the street, attracted by the sound of the shot. Gunfire usually meant patients, and the healer gently pulled JD’s hand away from the wound.

"Ow, Nathan!" the young peacekeeper protested, and the black man smiled.

"It’s not as bad as it looks," he stated, to everyone’s relief.

"How do you know?" JD demanded petulantly. The wound burned like fire across his ribs, and he felt a little queasy.

"’Cos if it were you wouldn’t be standing." He started to lead the youngster away. "C’mon - let’s get you seen to."

"But I’m… "


The single word came from the black dressed man who now hovered at Vin’s shoulder, and his firm tone brooked no argument. Chris Larabee was used to having his orders obeyed and, whether they liked it or not, the others were used to obeying them. With one quick glance at the gunslinger, JD allowed Nathan to steer him across the street towards the clinic, knowing that the shooting would be handled in the proper manner. Chris watched as the two men left, and then turned to Vin, demanding an explanation.

"What was all that about?"

By now the tracker knew why the two horses had seemed so familiar; Vin Tanner might occasionally forget a face, but he would never forget a horse, and he knew that those two had been ridden by members of the gang that had attacked the Indian Springs stage.

So he told Chris everything, leaving out none of the details, while the other three listened attentively. All of them knew of the wire that had been sent regarding the hold-ups, and how many people had lost their lives because of the gang.

"But why did he throw down on JD?" Buck Wilmington demanded. Despite of, or because of, their differences the ladies man tended to regard the peacekeeper as a younger brother, and what affected him affected Buck. "The kid didn’t know who he was, did he?"

"It was probably my fault," Vin admitted. "All JD wanted to do was warn him about his horse losing a shoe. Maybe he recognised me, and thought I’d sic’d the peacekeeper on him."

"I told him that badge’d be the death of ‘im," Buck muttered, to no one in particular.

"I believe Mr. Dunne was fully cognisant of the perils of the position before he accepted the role of peacekeeper."

Buck turned a withering glare on Ezra Standish as he made the comment, but the gambler ignored him. He was fully aware – as were the others – how Buck felt about JD, but he also knew that nobody could have talked the kid out of doing what he thought was right - taking the job of Peacekeeper when no-one else would.

"Yeah, well – "

"Buck, he’s gonna be okay."

Chris sighed; sometimes these men were worse than children! He turned to the tracker, who was carefully studying the ground around the hitching rail. "See anything, Vin?"

"Waal, yeah. Look at this." Tanner squatted on his heels, and pointed at the imprint of a horseshoe. Chris crouched down beside him, looking at the dirt and wondering what Vin could see that he didn’t. "The black had a slight nick out of its offside hind shoe. It should be fairly easy to follow."

Chris nodded in admiration. It had taken him a second, closer look to see the faint imperfection in the tracks, but one glance had told Vin all he needed to know.

"Alright. Josiah, I want you to stay here and take over JD’s duties for a while." Decision made, Chris started to organise the group. "Buck, you and Ezra fetch the supplies. We’re gonna be doing some hard travelling. Vin and I’ll go get the horses."

As Josiah started to move away, Buck gripped his arm.

"You tell Nathan to make sure that boy rests."

"I will, Brother Buck." The ex-preacher flashed his teeth at Wilmington, a mischievous twinkle in his eyes. "Maybe I’ll even tuck him up myself."

He ducked, chuckling as Buck made a playful swipe at him, then beat a hasty retreat as the ladies man turned his scorn on Vin, who was making clucking noises.

"Gentlemen!" The way Chris said the word made them feel anything but. "When you’ve quite finished?"

"Come along, Mr. Wilmington. I believe our illustrious leader requested that we procure provisions for this endeavour."

"Why don't you talk proper - like me," the ladies man growled as Ezra tipped his hat at Chris Larabee, then took Buck in tow and headed for the general store before anything else was said.

"Let’s go get the horses, Cowboy," Vin said, clapping a hand on his friend’s black-clad shoulder. "May’s well get on the trail while it’s still fresh."

Chris nodded. "You go ahead. I’ll catch up in a minute."

As his friends went about their tasks, Larabee turned and scanned the crowd for the one man whom he knew would always be in attendance at a shooting. A few words to the town undertaker were all that was needed to take care of the body.

From there Chris went down to the sheriff's office, and checked the wire that JD had received about the stage robberies against the pile of 'Wanted' posters in the drawer, trying to find a match but without success.

+ + + + + + +

The man on the black gelding had no intention of returning to the campsite by the creek that he and Travis McKenna had left four days ago. It didn’t matter that they had ridden to the way station at Indian Springs, and discovered the identity of the man who had helped to foil their plans. It only mattered that Travis had disobeyed his brother’s specific orders, followed the tracker to Four Corners, and gotten himself killed! Curly was not going to be the one to tell Doug McKenna that his only remaining brother was now dead.

Somewhere on his flight from town, he had lost the bay horse, and as he spurred his mount along the trail, his only thought was to get as far away as possible. Suddenly a shot rang out, and he yanked on the reins, jerking the black’s head up, causing it to rear and plunge. As he fought to remain in the saddle, and bring the animal under control, two men on horseback emerged from the trees at the side of the track.

Curly relaxed slightly when he recognized them as the other two men who rode with McKenna, but worry gnawed at him as he pondered the reason for them being there.

"Hiya, Curly! Doug was getting worried when you and the kid didn’t show."

The men tucked themselves in one on each side of him, and he gave a short laugh that sounded hollow even to his own ears.

"Was he?"

"Yeah." The second man spoke, frowning as he glanced back along the trail. "So, where is Travis?"

Curly sighed. "It’s a long story."

He lapsed into a morose silence. It looked as though he was going to have to explain after all, and it wasn’t something he was looking forward to.

+ + + + + + +

The quartet of riders left Four Corners by mid afternoon, provisions for several days in the burlap sacks that were fastened to each of their saddles.

Vin Tanner had decided that they would travel quicker without a packhorse, but he had chafed impatiently at the necessary delays that had held them up and allowed the trail to grow a little cold. However, he had had no option but to wait. Once Buck and Ezra had collected the supplies, they had met at the livery stable, but Chris had insisted they check on JD before leaving, and nobody argued with that decision.

The young peacekeeper was pleased to see them; the wound along his side was nothing more than a bloody furrow, but it had needed a few of Nathan's neat stitches and he was grateful for one of the healer's herbal potions that eased the pain and made him a little sleepy.

Having satisfied the kid's curiosity about who Travis McKenna was, and why he'd acted the way he did, they rode out, following the trail left by the rapidly fleeing man on the black gelding. For a while the tracks were plain enough for any of them to follow, even though Vin ranged a little way ahead of the others, and he soon found the point where the fast-riding man had halted and been joined by two others. But eventually even he had to give up as dusk closed in around them, and they made themselves a suitable camp for the night.

With a pot of coffee on the go, and the thick venison steaks finished off, they settled down for the night, Buck taking the first watch as Ezra rolled himself into his blanket and began to snore.

Chris and Vin sat side by side in front of the small fire, silence dropping around them like an old and trusted companion. It was only when the Texan sighed that Larabee realised something was troubling his friend.

"Okay, what's up?"

Vin was silent for a moment, then cocked his head on one side and regarded the gunslinger.

"Does it ever get easier?"

"Does what ever get easier?" Chris asked, although he had the feeling he already knew the answer to that question.

Vin ran a hand through his hair, and rested his chin on his cupped hands. "Kid's like the one in town." He closed his eyes, and a frown creased his brow. "He warn’t much older than JD, but - " He stopped, and glanced sideways at the man in black. "Does it ever get easier?"

Chris Larabee heard the pain in his friend's voice, and placed a hand on his forearm.

"I tell you what – if you ever stop asking yourself that, Vin, then you're not the man I thought you were."

"Thanks, Chris." The tracker looked up, and a wry grin touched his lips. "I guess if it does get easier, I'll be the first to walk away."

Chris smiled to himself, glad that he'd been able to shake the Texan out of his gloomy musings.

"Great! So now can we get some sleep?" He punched the buckskin-clad shoulder lightly. "You've got the watch after Buck."

+ + + + + + +

"Are you sure it was the same man?"

Doug McKenna’s comment, and the tone of his voice, made Curly shudder. He had been prepared for anything except the cold, dispassionate reaction that McKenna had shown on hearing of his youngest brother’s death. It had made the man almost feel sorry for the tracker named Vin Tanner.

Almost – but not quite.

"Yeah, I’m sure." Curly avoided looking into his leader’s eyes as he spoke. "Travis didn’t stand a chance. Tanner came after him with the sheriff and four gunslingers. I almost didn’t get away myself."

"Well I’m glad you did."

McKenna’s words chilled Curly to the bone. Although Doug hadn’t actually blamed him for allowing Travis to ride to Four Corners – as if he could have stopped him! – the implication was there, and he felt like a rabbit waiting for the rattlesnake to strike.

"You are?"

"Yes. How else would we know about the posse coming after us?" McKenna grinned, a calculating, wolf savage smile that left his eyes cold and made the other man squirm. "Fetch my horse for me. I need to take a ride."

As the other man hurried away, he chuckled softly to himself. Let Curly stew – he had something he needed to do.

+ + + + + + +

"So, Mr. Tanner, am I to assume we have lost the trail? Would you like me to peruse the ground perhaps?"

It was mid afternoon on the third day, and nobody was more frustrated than Vin Tanner as he squatted on his heels by the fast-flowing river.

Their progress had been necessarily slow, with the black gelding’s distinctive trail being masked and hidden on occasions by the prints of the other two horses. Yesterday a sudden downpour had all but erased any sign, and it was only Vin’s skill and determination that had found the faint markings where a lesser man would have failed. Then, earlier today, he had lost it altogether along a rocky scree that yielded no clues, but luck that time had pointed them in the right direction when Ezra, of all people, had found the clump of black tail hairs snagged in a bush.

Chris and the others had been patient, knowing how difficult the task was, but he could sense even their restlessness when they reached the river. The trail had stopped at the edge, and he had cast about up and down stream in an attempt to find any sign. The last thing he needed now was a smart comment from the gambler!

"No, " Vin replied, more sharply than he had intended, dabbling his fingers in the water as he stared over at the far side. "I reckon they went straight across."

He gave the Southerner a scathing look as he straightened and swung back into the saddle. Common sense told him that the man on the black gelding, along with his erstwhile companions, had crossed here; it was the only place for miles that was shallow enough to ford, even with the spring run off. Equally, it was the most obvious place for an ambush, but for once weariness and pride over-rode the tracker’s natural caution. Spurred on by Ezra’s remark, he urged his mount forward into the water, chirruping to the animal softly as it hesitated in the cold, clutching current.

"Wait up, Vin," Chris called, studying the far shore as he pushed his horse forward.

The tracker hauled on the reins, bringing his snorting mount to a halt, and twisted in the saddle as he glanced back at Larabee.

"Wha -?"

Suddenly a shot rang out. Vin jerked upright in the saddle, surprise etched on his face, then another shot sounded, and the Texan pitched sideways from his terrified, plunging horse, and into the roiling water.


Chris’ cry of alarm was almost drowned out by the sudden fusillade of shots that kicked up dirt in front of their nervous mounts, and he turned his horse’s head to follow Buck and Ezra up the slope towards the safety of a stand of trees. But he wasn’t prepared to leave the obviously injured tracker to the mercies of the river, and with Larabee, to think was to act. Pulling his mount to a stop, he slipped his arms out of his long black duster and unbuckled his gun-belt.

"Buck! Catch!"

Instinctively, the ladies man caught the belt as it was tossed in his direction, and he snatched up the reins of Chris’ horse, as the man in black hurled himself from the saddle and raced towards the river, heedless of his own safety.

Three things registered in the gunslinger’s mind as he dived into the water and struck out with long, powerful strokes towards the spot where he had last glimpsed the stricken tracker. Firstly he hadn’t realised just how strong the current was; he had seen how fast Vin had been swept along, and he could only hope that he had the strength to drag both of them from the river. Secondly, it was cold, a numbing, painful cold that made your breath catch in your throat. The recent spring thaw had contributed to both the speed and the iciness of the river, making it exceedingly treacherous. Finally, and to his amazement, he became aware that nobody was shooting at him!

Suddenly, his outstretched fingers brushed against something soft, and he grabbed at it, lifting his head and shaking wet hair from his eyes as his hand closed around the collar of Vin’s jacket. Treading water, he pulled the limp body towards him, flinging his arm around the younger man’s chest as he tucked the dark head back against his shoulder.

"Vin!" he gasped, not knowing whether his friend was alive or dead. Blood poured down the tracker’s face from a wound close to his left eye, and Larabee could see another dark patch staining the right-hand side of his jacket, and colouring the water around them.

Throwing a quick glance over his shoulder, Chris cupped a hand under Tanner’s chin, and struck out with an awkward sideways stroke for the shore. After a few minutes he paused to catch his breath, and was shocked to find that he was no nearer to the bank than when he’d started. The land on either side of the rushing water had gradually risen in height, forcing the river through a deep narrow cut, and the current was still steadily dragging both him and Vin downstream, but he could make no headway cutting across it to the shore.

Frantically glancing from one side to the other, the gunslinger realised he had no idea just how far they had been swept along, nor how long it had been since he dived in after his wounded friend. He could only hope that Buck and Ezra were following them – somehow – along the shoreline, until they could find a suitable place to try and pull them out. One thing was certain – they had to get out of the river, and soon! Chris could barely feel his legs, as the cold bit deep to the bone, and he didn’t want to think about how it was affecting the tracker in his weakened state – if he was still alive.

Suddenly, above the splashing of the water and his own laboured breathing, he heard another sound. Straining hard, he concentrated on trying to identify the source, and his heart lurched as he finally recognised it. Chris Larabee had ridden too many trails not to know the sound of a waterfall when he heard it and, as he glanced ahead, he could see the white flecked water and the faint mist as the river dropped away before them.

Knowing they had no chance of escaping the river before they reached the fall, Chris moved his hand away from Vin’s chin and reached down to hook his fingers through the tracker’s belt. He rolled onto his back and brought his other arm around and across Tanner’s chest.

Holding on grimly to the other’s belt and shirt, Chris did something that would have made Josiah proud. He prayed, long and hard, as they were swept, inexorably, towards the edge.


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