Disclaimer: I do not own the characters of The Magnificent Seven, who are owned by CBS, MGM, The Mirsch Corporation, and Trilogy. This work of fan fiction is not intended to infringe upon anyone with legal rights to The Magnificent Seven. I am just borrowing the characters and am receiving no money for this effort.
Chris was at his usual table in the corner of the saloon as the others gathered for the evening. Buck and JD had already started snipping at each other near the bar, and Ezra was engrossed in a game of poker. Josiah and Nathan wandered over and settled into a couple of chairs at Chris' table.
"Haven't seen Vin for a few days," Josiah commented.
Chris nodded. "Said he needed some space. Said he'd be gone for a few days and that he'd check outlying areas before he came back in. I expect he'll be back tomorrow or day after."
They knew Vin all too well. He'd spent too many years on his own, with no home but the range, to be truly comfortable with living in town. They'd all become accustomed to the fact that he needed to ride out by himself every once in while. He would let one of them know, and then disappear for a few days. Sometimes he'd be gone as long as a week, but not often, and on those occasions, they would be organizing a search party by the time he rode back into town. Chris would usually mutter a comment about how he shouldn't be gone so long and remind him of responsibilities, and Vin would look at him with those innocent blue eyes, "Don't tell me you were worried about me. I said I'd be back in a few days." He knew, of course, that they did worry about him, but he couldn't help himself. He needed the time alone away from the constraints of civilization to clear his head. So far, he'd chosen these times well as he had always managed to be there when they needed him and he usually fit in a patrol of outlying areas, so Chris really couldn't fault him for shirking his responsibilities.
Nathan voiced the concern that the others were feeling, "That boy is a magnet for trouble. I wish he wouldn't disappear for days at a time. How're we gonna know when he's just out galavanting or when he needs us?"
Josiah nodded his head. "We've just got to count on the Good Lord to watch over him." <I just hope the Good Lord is not occupied with other concerns when Vin needs his assistance,> he added silently.
He'd been out in the hills for a couple of days and was enjoying himself. While he'd really come to value the friendship of the others, Vin also relished these times by himself. It gave him a chance to savor the sights and smells and to think as he wandered through the hills. As evening approached, noting that weather was coming in, he headed into higher country where he knew of a cave big enough for the horse to stand out of the rain, too. He found the cave and made both himself and the horse comfortable by the time the rain started. He was warm and dry with a fire going so even when the rain came down heavily, he wasn't concerned.
The rain continued through the night but lightened in the morning. By mid-morning, he was beginning to get 'cabin fever' and the light drizzle was no deterrent to him. He figured he'd better keep his promise to Chris and patrol the Clear River area about a half day's ride east and then head back so he'd get into town tomorrow late. He knew they'd start fussing if he was gone more than four days.
He rode steadily noting that the rain had done some damage along the trail. While he considered turning back and going the long way around, but that would cost him at least a day, and some serious harassment from the others. He rode on, constantly scanning the hillside and trail for any signs of instability. By mid-afternoon, it started raining again and he decided extra time or not, he couldn't see or hear clearly enough to catch warning signs. Reluctantly he turned his horse back the other way. He hadn't gotten far when he felt an ominous shudder. The horse felt it, too, and it didn't take any urging to put him into a gallop.
He could both feel and hear the hillside as it gave way behind him and mud, trees, and rocks began to slide. He pressed the horse to go faster and could feel the bulk of the slide go on past him, but not quite all of it. The edges reached out with some loose tree limbs, tripping his horse so that the two of them went down and rolled. Vin was pitched forward into the jumble of rocks, mud, and trees. He fought to right himself and momentarily succeeded only to have his legs knocked out from under him by the rocks. He was thrown deeper into the onslaught and began tumbling wildly down the hill. His horse fared better. After his initial stumble, he managed to regain his feet on more firm ground and slid down the hill on his haunches. The last sounds of the slide were echoing as they reached bottom, and the horse, cut and muddy, fled in terror. Vin, knocked unconscious after the first few bounces off the rolling rocks, didn't move.
When he slowly became aware again, it was dark. His head and just about the whole rest of his body hurt. Cold and wet, half buried in mud, it took him awhile before he could shake the cobwebs in his head off enough to remember why he was in this miserable condition. A mudslide! He remembered the horse falling, but after a few rolls, he didn't remember anything else. He thought he had better assess the damage. He tried to raise his right hand to his head and regretted the movement immediately, his arm having sent gratingly painful messages to let him know that it was probably broken. He could tell he was folded in an awkward position, one leg jammed at an unlikely angle among some rocks, and he tried to shift to straighten himself out only to be assaulted from every corner by savage pain. Glancing as far as he could see without moving his aching head much, he saw no sign of his horse. Ungrateful wretch1 The movement, small as it was, caused his head to swim; he tried and failed to resist the blackness that enveloped him again.
"Vin's been gone four days," remarked JD to Buck and Ezra. "Isn't he usually back by now?"
"Now, Mr. Dunne, you know our man of the range. Once out, he has difficulty returning to our mundane city life," chimed in Ezra. Ezra was not at all happy with the fact that the tracker's movements could cause him such worry. His mama would not be pleased to learn what a worrywart he had become.
"Chris rides him pretty hard about not going off for too long at a time, but he's done this before, so I don't think there's anything wrong," answered Buck, but he too was beginning to watch the end of the street for Vin to ride in. <I bet Chris is more worried than we are,> he thought.
The gunslinger was indeed starting to worry, as were the others. "Chris, didn't you expect Vin back by yesterday?" asked Nathan. Josiah, nodded, also conveying concern.
The gunslinger nodded. If he set out searching and there was no need, Vin would be angry with the others, and Chris in particular, for not trusting him to take care of himself. The tracker was fiercely independent and really hated to be a burden on the group. He would not take kindly to finding a search party looking for him just because he was a day late coming home.
"He hates it when we mother hen him," commented Chris. He went on, "We'd better wait a day. A few of us can ride out tomorrow to have a look for him. He's probably just lost track of time." His words, intended to be reassuring to the others, didn't make him feel so, and he continued to glance down the street for signs of the tracker throughout the day. He didn't know why, but things just didn't feel right to him.
When Vin came around next, it was daylight. He lifted his aching head enough to see that he lay amidst the rubble at the edge of the slide. He could also see that his left leg was wedged in the rocks and at an angle that could only be achieved if the leg were broken. He fought the blackness threatening him long enough to pull the leg free, then fell back while the excruciating pain overtook him. When he could think again, he took stock of his situation. The good news was that the rain had stopped. The rest of the news didn't measure up so well. He was wet and cold, crumpled at the base of an unstable hillside, with a broken arm, broken leg, massive headache, a deep gash across his midriff that had painted his shirt front red, and probably other injuries that hadn't even announced themselves yet. On top of it, his horse was no where to be seen, supplies and gear gone with the horse. He had his knife and his gun, both dependent for maximum effectiveness on an arm that didn't work right now. The outlook for him if he stayed where he was not optimistic. He was off the trail in an area well removed from where he had told Chris he would be, and with the broken leg, it wasn't likely that he would be walking back to Four Corners.
He thought of his friends. Chris was probably starting to get anxious, but would he be concerned enough to come looking for him? Vin now regretted having treated his friend's worry so lightly when he'd chastised the tracker for wandering off before. He could really use the help of the others now. He particularly needed Nathan. Vin didn't know much doctoring, and looking at himself, he thought his present condition might be a challenge for even Nathan's talents. He shook off these unproductive thoughts, Chris, Nathan, and the others weren't here, and they weren't likely to find him soon; he had to figure out how to take care of himself.
First things first. If he wanted to be found by the search party that he had faith would eventually come, he needed to get back up the hill to the trail. Furthermore, it was clear that he wasn't going to get anywhere unless he could splint his arm and leg well enough to keep the bones from grating and making him feel like passing out every time he moved. He also needed to get any bleeding stopped. After checking the gash across his stomach, he decided that although it was deep and ugly, the bleeding had almost stopped; if he were careful not to pull at it, it would probably be safe enough. He didn't have any whiskey to cleanse it with anyway. Arm first - he'd use his suspenders and the thong from his holster to bind things. Fortunately, with all the tree branches downed with him, he didn't have trouble finding a couple of branches of a suitable length, and using his left hand and teeth, he was able to tie them tight to the broken forearm. It was pretty crude, and he wasn't sure that the bones were lined up properly, but at least the splints would keep the broken bones from moving and grating against each other.
The leg was tougher because he had to try to pull it straight first, and the only way he knew to do that was to lodge the foot between two rocks and pull back on the leg to bring the bones back in alignment. He managed to slide over to a suitable pair of rocks and place the foot appropriately. He steeled himself, then, pushed back with all his strength with his other leg. As he felt the bones shift, he couldn't stifle a cry at the pain and collapsed while the dizziness and nausea passed. He then tied on the leg splints as well as he could with his left hand. It was a slow process and he was exhausted and shaking when he leaned back to rest and let all the raw nerves calm down.
It must have been past noon before he finished tending to his injuries and felt ready to tackle the climb up the hill. He quickly found that the makeshift crutch he'd fashioned with his knife from a branch was of limited usefulness because it would frequently sink in the soft ground. He was forced to find harder, rocky surfaces on which to plant it on in order to get any support; as a consequence he had to zig-zag his way up the hill. His progress was painfully slow and he had to stop every few minutes to rest and wait for the pain and dizziness to subside. By early evening, he was exhausted and hadn't yet reached the trail. It wasn't the way he would choose to spend the night, cold and wet, perched on an unstable hillside, but he didn't have any choice. He slept fitfully, waking frequently either because of the penetrating cold or because one of this injuries sent out a jolt of pain.
On the morning of the fifth day that Vin had been gone, Yosemite set about his usual chores at the livery, mucking out the stalls, feeding and watering the horses. He thought he'd turn out a couple in the corral for some exercise. As he was leading the horses out, he noticed the black near the water trough. He recognized it as Tanner's gelding, but the horse was a mess, covered with mud and cuts, and he was favoring a foreleg; there was no sign of the tracker. "Oh, Lordy, I'd better let Mr. Larabee know about this right away!" he mumbled, as he set off at a stiff run for the boarding house. There wasn't much activity there yet, but he figured this was important so he braced himself and banged on Larabee's door. Chris, who was up and getting ready to head down to find a cup of coffee, opened the door to a very agitated Yosemite.
"Mr. Larabee, you gotta come quick to the livery! Mr. Tanner's horse came in last night and he's all banged up!"
"Damn, I've got to pay more attention to my instincts, " thought Chris as he headed outside. He bumped into the ex-preacher, who was just heading for breakfast. "Josiah, come with me to the livery! I think we've got trouble!" Together they headed for the livery with Yosemite in tow.
Chris and Josiah studied the horse with grim faces and deepening concern. The animal looked miserable. He appeared to have taken a fall as he had numerous cuts on his body and legs, and the saddle was badly scuffed up. "The reins are still looped over his neck. That means Vin was probably on the horse when he fell. He must have rolled," Chris noted. Then after further inspection, he added, "I don't see any blood on the saddle."
This minor good news was more than counterbalanced by the sinking feeling caused by their next observation, that all of Vin's gear, including his rifle, was still tied to the saddle. Josiah commented as he inspected the horse's swollen leg, "He can hardly walk. No telling how long it took him to get back here."
The condition of the horse seemed to confirm their worst fears -- the tracker was in trouble. "We'd better get the others up and go look for Vin," Chris said. "Damn him. Why does he have to go wandering off alone all the time? I knew something would happen one of these days," he thought to himself. He couldn't imagine that the horse could be in such bad shape without something also having happened to Vin. If he were hurt, he would be in no condition to take care of himself in those hills, and he didn't have any gear. There were mountain lions out there that might steer clear of a man on horse but wouldn't shy away from an injured man on the ground.
"Do you know where he went?" Josiah broke into his thoughts. He knew Vin's ranging carried him to some pretty far-reaching areas. They needed to narrow the alternatives.
"Not exactly, but I do know he was planning to make a circuit in the Clear River area. We better start in that direction."
As the two started back to the boarding house, Josiah turned to Yosemite. "Can you take care of him? Clean the cuts and see what you can do for the leg?"
The livery man nodded, "I'll do what I can Mr. Sanchez. He looks awful, but I think I can fix him up pretty good."
Chris was already well along to waking the others. Nathan and JD were up and moving anyway, but it took more effort to raise Ezra and Buck, both of whom did not favor this hour of the morning. "Vin's in trouble," he came right to the point as they gathered. "His horse came in last night and he looks like he's taken a bad fall. There's no telling where Vin is. He could be hurt. His rifle, bedroll, and saddlebags were still on the horse. We don't know where he went first, but we know he was planning to scout the Clear River area about this time, so we'll head there first." He didn't need to ask if they would join him; he knew they all would. None of the seven would ever let one of the others down when he needed help. "Better get packed up; it's a good half day's ride to get there. If we get moving soon, we'll have time to search some today." He paused and considered for a minute, "Buck and JD, you'd better stay to look after things here. We can't leave the town completely unprotected."
At this, JD looked indignant and opened his mouth to protest when Buck stepped in with a more acceptable solution, "Look, Chris, I know we have a responsibility here, but there are soldiers in town for a couple of days. Nothing is likely to happen. You know how big the Clear River area is. It's gonna take all six of us to spread out and search it. If Vin's hurt, we've got to find him and get him help fast. You need me and JD with you." Chris nodded. He knew this was an argument he couldn't win and he didn't want to. Buck was right; they were all needed to scour the hills for the tracker.
Nathan didn't wait for Chris to suggest that he pull together his medical supplies. He hoped he wouldn't be needing them and that they'd find the sharpshooter angry and on foot, making his way back to Four Corners. But he also knew the tracker seemed to have bad luck when it came to injury. Nathan would be prepared. When it came to Vin, the healer wished his gut feelings weren't always so right; his feelings now told him the tracker needed their help, and soon.
JD, satisfied that his place in the search party was secured, ran over to the livery to begin getting the horses ready. While he was saddling them up, he looked over at Yosemite working on Vin's horse. He could see how badly battered and muddied the animal was, and he could the scratches all over the saddle. It was clear that the horse had rolled. <Oh, God> he thought <Vin, I hope you were thrown free.> He grimaced at the image of Vin trapped under the horse. After a moment, he shook that thought away and turned back to the task of preparing six horses for a hard ride.
Vin awoke feeling miserable, sick and wracked with chills. He must be getting a fever and he hoped it wasn't because infection was setting in. He hadn't been able to cleanse any of his cuts properly and there wasn't anything he could do until he could get to some help. This thought brought him jarringly back to where he was, perched on a hillside with a long climb still to get back to the trail so that his friends would find him. His friends -- Vin never doubted that they would come.
He thought of Chris and the others. He wasn't quite sure how much time had passed, but he hoped that their usual habit of starting to worry about him might work in his favor. He knew that at some point, they would be able to contain themselves no longer and they would set out to look for him. Most times, this kind of attention from them was stifling; now, he felt guilty about his past thoughts and gruff comments to the others. He wished they'd come sooner rather than later because he couldn't imagine how he was going to get out of his current predicament without their help. He knew they would come, but he had to get himself to a more obvious place, not hidden in shrubs and rubble halfway down the hillside. For this reason, he had to move uphill.
Once again, he started out on the painful process of working his way up. If it was possible, he moved even more slowly than the day before. The hillside was strewn with the aftermath of the slide, including some sizeable trees, branches and boulders. He did his best to work his way around these. At this rate, he figured he was probably doubling the distance he had to travel, but with only one arm and one leg, he didn't feel confident that he could safely climb over many of the obstacles. In addition, he continued feeling dizzy and he swayed as his tired muscles kept getting shakier, but he knew he had to keep moving to a position where he would be more visible to the inevitable search party. He was afraid if he sat to rest, he might never get moving again.
In the afternoon, the rain started again; it wasn't heavy, but by this time, he was in no shape to take on any further hardships and he groaned out loud as his chills worsened. He forced himself to focus on taking one step at a time as he doggedly pushed himself up the slick hillside, leaning more and more heavily on the crutch. He was getting close to the top when his trembling muscles failed him, and the crutch slipped as he was trying to negotiate a pile of rocks. With his broken leg providing no support, he crashed down and started rolling back down the hill. His descent was halted with bone-jarring abruptness by a large boulder in his path. His head exploded with pain and he felt no more.
The rest of the Seven had been riding for a half day at a hard pace toward the hills when it started raining about mid-afternoon. In frustration, they had to slow their horses, as the ground became a bog of dark mud. The rain only lasted for a couple of hours, but it slowed them down sufficiently that it was dusk by the time they reached the base of the Clear River hills.
"Might I suggest that we locate a suitable site that is not awash in mud to camp for the night and start our search in the morning?" posed Ezra.
Chris turned a stormy face to him, "No! We start searching now!" He couldn't explain the feelings of dread, but he knew Vin was in terrible trouble and that he needed their help. He couldn't bear the thought of waiting the hours until morning.
Buck and Josiah both jumped in at the point. Buck offering, "Chris, there's no point in trying. We're going to have to look carefully for signs, and we need good light to do that." Josiah in his most calm and persuasive voice, "The ground may be unstable around here. We can't risk someone else falling because they can't properly see where they're going. Much as it pains me to say this, I agree with Buck and Ezra, we can do little tonight."
The gunslinger was seething with pent-up frustration, but he couldn't dispute the wisdom of their words. He tried scouting around a bit as they set up camp, but quickly realized he couldn't see anything and there was no response from Vin to his calls.
It was an uncomfortable evening. No one felt much like talking. Chris sat like a tightly coiled spring, unable to accept the fact that they could do nothing for awhile. They spoke only enough to lay out their search strategy for the next day, dividing into three teams of two to cover the east and west sides and through the middle near the river. They went to sleep early, their only means of hurrying the hours until the search could start at first light.
When Vin came to, it was light, the rain had stopped, and he judged it to be morning. What day? How long had he been lying on this hillside? He feared that the others may have already checked this area and passed right by without knowing he was just a little ways down the hill. He could tell he'd done more damage in the second fall. His head felt twice its normal size and the intense pain was constant. His chest felt like someone with large spurs was stepping on it with each breath. <Must have cracked a rib or two.> As he was exploring his chest with his good arm, he could feel warm wetness across his stomach. <Oh, God, opened the cut again.> He couldn't tell much about the arm and the leg, except that they hurt. He tried to sit up and check things out but thought better of it when the pain almost made him pass out again. He rested his head back to catch his breath and see what he could from that angle, which wasn't much because something was blocking his vision. He reached his left hand up to wipe his eyes and waited for his vision to clear. When it didn't, he rubbed his eyes again, but it wasn't any better. Everything was blurred with what seemed to be a gray film. He shook his head to clear it, but that caused an explosion of pain and his vision, if anything, got worse. <No sudden movements,> he told himself. <Just move gently and it will probably all clear up in a short while.>
Shortly, he decided that things were not going get any better, but he knew if he stayed where he was, he would probably die there. His chills were getting worse and none of his aches had lessened. He could see well enough to make his way once again up the hill. He hoped he hadn't lost too much ground. His crutch had disappeared in the fall, and he didn't have the strength to fashion a new one. Besides, he was so dizzy and weak, he figured he probably wouldn't be able to manage it anyway. Using a combination of crawling and hobbling on the good leg, he began to move slowly up. Fortunately, he hadn't fallen back far and after a few hours, he collapsed onto the trail. He'd done it!
He lay there to rest while he decided what to do next. His only goal had been to get up to the trail, beyond that, he didn't have much of plan. Wait to be rescued. Where? He had no shelter where he was. Water. He was thirsty. He'd found small amounts of rainwater in hollows in the rocks while he was on the hill, but he was really thirsty now. He knew of a nearby stream and began the painful process of getting to it, leaning on the rocks by the side of the trail as he tried to hop along. By evening, he was at the stream and found a small rock outcropping nearby to offer some shelter for the night. He wasn't sure when he'd last eaten, but he was feeling so sick, he didn't care about food. A search of his pockets produced some matches. With the driest wood he could find, he made a fire and at least had that modest comfort for the long night.
Somewhere not too distant he heard a mountain lion scream. He checked his gun and found that he still had it, but it wasn't much good on his right side. He pulled it out of the holster with his left hand and put it on the ground close by. He wished now that he had spent more time learning to shoot with his left hand. He wasn't sure he'd be able to control his aim at all with that hand. He also determined that he'd better stay awake to keep the fire going. As it turned out, he was so uncomfortable that sleep was a near impossibility. At one point, he heard the cat moving in fairly close, and he fired in the general direction of the sound. He knew he hadn't hit it, but hoped that he might have scared it off for awhile.
Chris and Ezra searched the western side, Buck and JD the eastern side, while Nathan and Josiah worked through the middle area. It took all day to cover the territory because they had to be careful not to overlook inconspicuous places where Vin might be trapped. It was a discouraging day, and a tired and worried group that met at camp again that evening.
"He's not here and there are no signs of a place where a horse took a fall," said Buck.
"What's more," added Josiah, "the area doesn't look like anyone has been through for a while."
Chris knew they were right, but this left him with a serious problem. If Vin wasn't here, where was he? He hadn't told anyone which direction he was going. He was likely within a day's ride of this area, but that covered a huge territory, and they might be running out of time. His feelings of dread had been steadily increasing since they left Four Corners; he was sure Vin needed their help now. "We don't have time to search every possible direction Vin might have gone. Everyone think back. Does anyone know of an area close by that Vin likes to go?"
"I know he likes to head east of here toward the scrub land," remarked Nathan.
"He took me west of here once," offered JD pointing to the next range of hills. "We got caught in the rain, and he took me to some caves where we could get out of the rain. He was real cautious as we rode out later because he said there was a danger of mudslides after the rain."
They considered this information. "His horse didn't look like he fell in the scrub. He looked like he could have been caught in a mudslide. If no one has any other ideas," Chris looked around at the group, "I think our best bet is to head west in the morning. JD can you find the trail into that area again?"
JD nodded, hoping he really could. He and Vin had come at it from another direction, but he thought he could get there from here.
Sometime near dawn, Vin gave up and let the fire go out. He was exhausted and his body hurt in every corner. The chill he felt was so deep he couldn't imagine ever warming up. He shivered uncontrollably and constantly. He blinked and rubbed his eyes to clear his blurred vision, but this helped no more than it had the day before. <Great! I'm practically blind and there's a mountain lion out there.> He had trouble distinguishing any details of the scene around him, but he could make out some color and movement.
He was at the end of his rope and knew he couldn't move farther that day. As dizzy as he was and unable to see clearly, he could easily end up moving in the wrong direction or slipping off the trail again. He was pretty sure that his body wasn't going to tolerate much more battering. His chest hurt so badly, drawing each breath caused knives of pain to shoot through, and he was shivering violently and felt so sick he couldn't even find the strength to get down to the stream for water. The stream would have been no more impossible to reach had it been a mile away, instead of a few yards. Thus, he settled on the only plan possible. He would wait here for help, which he hoped would come soon, because just breathing was wearing him out and he wasn't sure he could stay conscious for much longer.
The other six left at first light, pushing the horses as fast as they dared. As they moved into hills to the west, they could see that the rain had done damage here. There were numerous areas of run-off, and the whole area looked unstable. It wasn't long before they came to a point where the trail was blocked by a recent mudslide. Their spirits fell looking at the slide; it had been big, uprooting whole trees and moving boulders down the hill. "Dear God," said Josiah.
Buck looked over at Chris; his normally impassive face was twisted with dismay and concern. 'Oh, God, let Vin be all right.' Buck didn't want to think about what would happen to Chris if the tracker were dead. Buck looked back helplessly at the slide.
No one voiced what they all were thinking; if Vin had been caught by the slide, it was not likely that he could have survived.
While the group stared at the mound of dirt and rock, Ezra put out a more optimistic thought. "While I know that this does not look fortuitous for Mr. Tanner, we must remember that his horse survived. This leads me to conclude that the odds are also in favor of Mr. Tanner's survival. He was probably was not caught by the full force of this momentous event, but was on the edge of it. I suggest that, with all due haste, we search the perimeter of this slide." With that, he aimed his horse down the hill to inspect the eastern side of the mudslide.
The others, heartened by this more favorable view of the situation, moved along after him. Unfortunately, Ezra's enthusiasm caused him to move too quickly on the unstable hill, and his horse almost immediately stumbled as the soft ground slid a little under him. Ezra was pitched forward, rolled a short ways, and came to a halt a few feet farther down the hill. Nathan was off his horse and running after Ezra, arriving at his side almost at the same moment he came to a halt.
"Ezra! Are you OK?" Nathan cried. The gambler, although having picked up a liberal coating of mud, seemed little harmed other than a cut on his forehead that Nathan inspected. He quickly set to bandaging it, while Chris and the other joined them, moving more cautiously on the hill.
"Look, we've got to move very carefully. Stay spread out and watch out for each other. We don't want anything happening to someone else," cautioned Chris.
Moving slowly, they progressed down the eastern side and worked their way across the bottom of the slide, finding nothing. As they came to the western edge of the base, they spotted Vin's hat. Nathan, Josiah, and Ezra leapt off their horses and began digging through the mud and rubble nearby. Chris, Buck, and JD fanned out to search the immediate vicinity.
"Over here," called Buck. They all moved to join him where he indicated rain-washed signs that the tracker had been there. The ground was disrupted where he had fallen and there were bloodstains on some of the rocks.
"He must have been hurt, but he was able to move up the hill," Chris pointed to tracks in the mud. The tracks had been washed by the rain, but were still discernible. The group felt a collective sense of relief that the tracker had not been killed in the slide. They began following the erratic set of tracks up the hill.
"Why didn't he just stay here where we would have found him? Why did he have to go wandering off?" asked JD.
"He must have thought it was better to get up to the trail to try to get help. Or maybe he was looking for his horse," answered Buck. He, too, was wishing that Vin had just stayed put.
While they all felt somewhat better, their worries started to grow again as they moved up the hill and didn't find him. They did, however, find the site where he had fallen near the top, and Nathan could not hide his concern at the amount of blood staining this area. The tracks from this spot were fresher and not rain-washed; everyone's spirits lifted because that meant that the tracker had been at this point within the last two days. The group quickly renewed their efforts to follow the tracks up the hill and soon found the place where Vin had collapsed on the trail.
As the day progressed, Vin fought to retain consciousness. He periodically scanned the area trying to force his uncooperative eyes to discern signs of the cat or of his friends, hoping the latter would arrive first. But he knew that it was unlikely. Chris and the others had no way of knowing where he was. He'd done this to himself by repeatedly turning them away when they inquired about his travels. He realized now that they only were indicating that they cared for him, but he wasn't used to that level of attention and it scared him. He'd only give Chris a hint of where he might be. They would surely be searching the Clear River area, and he wouldn't be there. They wouldn't know where to look next. He thought ruefully that his climb to the trail was probably in vain. In all likelihood, he'd be meeting the cat long before his friend ventured this way. He tightened his grip on his gun, but it felt unfamiliar in his left hand and he held little hope that it would be of much use to him should the cat decide to attack. At least he wouldn't hang in Tascosa.
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