Chris was seething with anger as he left the jail. He was cursing himself for not following his instincts. Deep down he had known that things were going to spiral out of control, and what had he done? Nothing! He had sat back and waited for this disaster to happen! He mentally shook himself. Hell! It was no good thinking about all of the what ifs now, he had to find Vin. God! He was worried about him!
He caught sight of a blur of activity as a horse galloped out of the livery. As it approached he recognised Vin in the saddle, urging his horse to go faster as though the devil was on his tail.
"Vin!" he yelled as the blur galloped past him. Vin kept going, Chris following his progress with his eyes in desperation and defeat. Hell! If he gets out on the trail Ill never find him! he thought in exasperation.
He shook himself into action and started to run towards the livery.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan had been preparing some tea for Vin when he saw him through the window riding hell for leather out of town.
"Damn it Vin!" He said out loud. " You stubborn, good for nothing, sorry excuse for a sharpshooter! Yer gonna kill yerself one of these days!"
He dropped what he was doing and ran out of the door and down the steps of the clinic. As he reached the bottom he saw Chris running in the direction of the livery and decided he was the likely choice to find out where the hell Vin thought he was going.
As he approached the gunslinger he realised Chris was not going to stop for a chat so he ran alongside him.
"Chris! What the hells goin on?" He managed to gasp out "I just saw Vin high tailing it out of town."
Chris did not slow his pace. "No time to explain now Nathan! The others are still in the jail. Ezras jaw may need lookin at!"
Nathan said nothing. He slowed down to a walk and watched Chris disappear into the livery.
The healer was more puzzled than ever as he made his way to the Sheriffs office. What the heck could have happened in the short time since he had left Vin? He shook his head in wonder. Things happened so fast around here with these men it was enough to make your head spin!
+ + + + + + +
The men in the jail were struck dumb by what had happened there. An eerie silence enveloped the small room as Josiah helped Ezra to a chair and JD hovered over Buck who had sunk to the floor after Chriss onslaught.
JD looked over uncertainly at Josiah who had tilted Ezras head up and was examining the bruise that was slowly beginning to form on the gamblers jaw.
Looking back at Buck he opened his mouth to speak but immediately closed it again as he registered the look on his friends face.
Buck was distraught. His big heart felt like it was breaking as he thought about how much anguish he had caused Vin. His chest was pulled so tight with the feeling of regret inside him it felt like it would snap. And Chris! He had been so angry! But heck! He was right to be angry.
The big mans body tensed as he felt a hand on his arm. Turning his gaze on JD he saw the worried look on the young mans face.
"Go help Josiah, kid. I dont need ya here." Buck said quietly, turning away from the hurt look he saw come over JDs face.
"What in tarnation is goin on?"
The occupants of the jail all looked up into the perplexed face of Nathan as he walked further into the room. No-one spoke.
Nathan rolled his eyes in exasperation and surveyed the room. Buck was on the floor leaning against the wall, a crest fallen look on his face. But he appeared not to be hurt. He turned his attention to the other end of the room where Ezra sat, looking equally bleak, and, noticing the bruise on the gamblers jaw he walked over to him.
Josiah stood as Nathan approached. "I believe their souls are hurting more than their bodies, Brother Nathan." He said to the healer.
Nathan gave him a bewildered look as he knelt beside Ezra and examined the damage Vin had inflicted on his jaw.
"Ow! Now Mr Jackson, I declare myself relatively unharmed and in no dire need of your medical assistance." Ezra noticed a stiffness in his jaw as he spoke. Heavens! It was going to be a painful reminder of recent events for a few days to come, he decided.
Nathan satisfied himself that no permanent damage had been done. Nevertheless, he thought, at least they may have a little peace from Ezras constant chatter for a few days, until the injured jaw loosened up.
Getting to his feet, he looked once more around the room. "Now! Would someone please tell me what the heck happened here."
+ + + + + + +
Chris strode up to his horse, he knew he had no time to waste. Grabbing his saddle from the wall behind him he threw it over his horses back. He wondered, not for the first time, why he had let himself get involved with these men. Shaking his head he grabbed the leather girth on his saddle and began to buckle it under his horses belly. His hands stopped their task as he noticed something odd. Running his hand along the leather of the girth he realised it was almost sliced right the way through. He clenched his teeth. "Damn you Vin Tanner!" he exclaimed. Lifting the saddle from his horse he threw it angrily to the floor.
A man who had been grooming his horse in the next stall, eyed Chris warily. As scared brown eyes met murderous green ones the man dropped the grooming brush he had been using moments before and backed out of the stall. Turning towards the door he began running until he was safely out of the livery.
If Chris had not been so worried, he would have laughed out loud. As it was, all he managed was a slight twitch at the corners of his mouth, before he once again focused on his problem.
"You aint gonna stop me comin for ya cowboy! Ya might have slowed me down a few minutes, but Im not beaten yet!" Chriss angry eyes darted around in the dim light of the livery. They rested on JDs saddle. "Thanks JD." he said to himself, as he grabbed the young Sheriffs saddle and secured it onto his horse.
Climbing into the saddle, he clipped the horses sides with his heels, spurring the horse into action. As he galloped out of town he offered up a silent prayer that everything would be alright.
+ + + + + + +
Vin pulled on the reins of his horse when he thought it was safe to slow down a little. He had been riding like the wind to get as far away from town as quickly as possible. He leaned forward in his saddle as more coughing assailed him. He silently cursed his ailment once again. After each bout of coughing he felt weaker. When the latest onslaught was over he lifted his head and surveyed the landscape, trying to gauge how far he had come. There was high, rocky ground in the distance. Yes! He would head for that! He could easily lose himself up there.
His horse was now travelling at a walk and he let it continue that way, not wanting to push the animal too hard.
His mind wandered back to the events of the day. Heck! How did he land himself in this situation? He should never have let Ezra hoodwink him the way he had. He should have listened to his gut when he was talking to Ezra on the roof. The only one of the men he knew he could trust was Chris.
Chris! God, he hoped he had noticed the girth on his saddle was cut. He couldnt cut right through it, he hadnt had the strength. He was disgusted with himself for his weakness and frustrated with himself for his stupidity.
They had laughed at him! They had all been in the jail listening to Buck read the poem that Ezra had obviously offered up for them to hear. These men whom he had, until today, tentatively called his friends had shattered his faith in friendship. It even felt alien to him to think of Chris as a friend. He would have to redefine the word all over again, because it sure as hell wasnt what he had thought it to be!
Another coughing spree assaulted his body, making his horse dance a little as the hacking noise invaded the quietness of the trail. Vin reached for his canteen as he once again got himself under control. Removing the lid he brought the container to his dry lips. It was empty!
Cursing loudly, Vin threw the canteen to the ground. He had been so eager to leave town he had forgotten to check on supplies. Dammit! He cursed again as he wiped the sweat from his face with his buckskinned arm. Thats all he needed he thought as he realised he felt hotter than he should.
He shut his eyes against the headache he was giving himself, lapsing into an uneasy sleep as he balanced on the slow movement of his horses back.
His mind decided to be unkind to him. Once again, in a moment of peace, the images he had been fighting against rose to the surface, cascading one by one into pictures of his past life he truly did not want to remember.
Jerking awake, Vin nearly fell from his horse, righting himself just in time. His heart was hammering in his chest and his feeling of desperation was so strong he could stand it no more.
Reining his horse to a standstill he slid from the saddle and staggered a few feet before stopping in his tracks. His fists were clenched by his sides, his knuckles white. He lifted his arms outwards as he threw back his head and let out a heart wrenching scream of anguish, pain and despair.
Dropping to his knees in the dirt he buried his head in his hands.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan continued to look at the men in the jail. They were all acting like they were in shock.
"I wanna know why Vin just rode outta town like a hundred bounty hunters was after im." He ground out, looking from one man to the other. "And I wanna know now!"
He looked at Buck, and frowned in concern. The scoundrel was sitting on the floor, his elbows on his knees with his head bent, his hands raking through his hair. "Buck ?" he began.
Bucks head came up so fast it made JD, who was kneeling at his side, jump in alarm.
"Nathan, please I cant " Bucks voice was pleading. JD reached out his hand once again, hoping to give some comfort to his mentor.
In one swift movement Buck was on his feet. "Jist leave me alone! All of ya!" he yelled. Looking around the room at the faces of his friends his shoulders slumped. "I Im sorry. I jist cant talk right now." He lowered his eyes and walked quickly from the room.
Nathan sighed and sat down. Running a hand down his face he turned his eyes to Josiah.
"Lord knows! This is a mess!" Was all he got from the preacher.
Looking at Ezra he knew he would not get anywhere there. The gambler was looking anywhere but at the other men, and even if he did want to talk he would find it difficult with the bruised jaw he was sporting.
That left JD. As Nathan looked at the young Sheriff he knew he had struck gold. The face that looked back at him had a mouth that was just bursting to relate the whole sorry tale.
"JD?" Nathan sat back and waited.
JD swallowed as the three sets of eyes burned into him.
"Well, from what I can make out, Ezra dropped a piece of paper that had Vins poem on it and "
As JD continued to relate the events of the day, Ezra sighed and dropped his eyes. He tensed as they rested on an object on the floor by his foot. Reaching down, he picked it up, his heart jumping as it struck him what he had found.
He nearly dropped it to the floor again as his fingers opened on reflex, as though they had been burned. He felt as though he was intruding on something very private just by holding this object in his hands. It was one of Vins prized possessions. Lord! He didnt have much, but this instrument seemed to have a strong meaning in Vins life. Putting it discreetly in his pocket, he felt the paper that was safely tucked away there. He made a silent promise to himself that he would ensure that these two items would be returned to their rightful owner.
+ + + + + + +
Buck entered the saloon and his eyes automatically went to the table where he and the other six peacekeepers always sat. There was nobody there. Of course there wasnt! What had he expected? Vin and Chris to be sitting there with grins on their faces yelling Surprise! He closed his eyes and swallowed. Opening his eyes once again he saw Inez behind the bar, regarding him with curious brown eyes. He couldnt even manage a smile as he approached the bar.
"Gimme a bottle." He said flatly, throwing some coins on the counter.
Inez did not take her eyes from Buck as she reached for a bottle. She had never seen him like this before. Placing a glass on the counter, she poured him a drink.
Buck looked at her for a moment but said nothing. Picking up the glass and the bottle he turned away and sat at the usual table.
Throwing his head back, he downed the liquid in one gulp. The bitter taste burned the back of his throat on its way to his stomach. Picking up the bottle, he poured himself another glass and disposed of it the same way. This procedure continued until most of the bottle was gone.
"Buck? What is it? Why are you doing this?"
The female voice at his side penetrated his foggy mind. Turning his head and looking into the big, concerned eyes he shrugged.
"Well, ya know Inez? Just felt like havin a drink. Ya got a problem with that pretty lady?" The words were slurred and the eyes that looked back at her had the look of a wounded animal.
"Buck, please. This is not like you. Tell me what is wrong. Are the others alright? Has something happened to one of your friends?"
Buck picked up the almost empty bottle and poured its remains down his throat.
Slamming it on the table he licked his lips and turned his gaze back to Inez.
"One of my friends?" he began. "Well, see Inez. Now thats where things get a little hazy, honey. Im not sure who I can call my friends anymore." His voice cracked with emotion. "Ive hurt one of em real bad, Inez. I didnt mean it. I didnt know. Now Chris and Vin .." He bowed his head as his eyes filled with tears.
Inez reached out a hand and placed it on the distraught mans shoulder. She did not know what had happened, but, by the way Buck was acting, she figured it was definitely not good.
"What has happened to Chris and Vin?" She asked quietly.
Buck turned his head away. He couldnt talk about this now. He had to get away from here. Shrugging off the gentle hand on his shoulder he rose to his feet. "Gimme another bottle." he said gruffly. Still not looking at Inez, he walked to the bar and threw some more coins on the counter.
"Buck. Dont do this. Getting drunk never solved anything." Inez knew she wasnt getting through to the tall man as soon as she saw the look in his eyes as he turned to face her.
"Ive paid for the bottle. Give it to me now!" The voice was quiet, but there was no mistaking the underlying anger in the tone.
Inez searched the face that was now glaring back at her. A feeling of resignation filled her body. This idiot was going to drink himself unconscious whatever she said. Stomping to the bar she reached for another bottle and slammed it on the counter. "There!" She said angrily. "Go and get nice and drunk. Im sure you will feel much better afterwards, and it is sure to help your friends!"
Bucks eyes stared icily back at her. He didnt have time for this. Picking up the bottle he turned away, without saying a word, and staggered drunkenly out of the saloon.
"Ya know what Im gonna do?" He asked the bottle as he swayed down the street. "Im gonna go find Vin, and Im gonna make things right again. Thats what Im gonna do."
Looking around him, a puzzled frown appeared on his face as the buildings swam in front of his eyes. "Now all I gotta do is find my horse."
+ + + + + + +
Vin had no idea how long he had remained on his knees. His body was stiff and his limbs were aching. Looking up he saw that it would be dark pretty soon. His body felt heavy as he struggled to his feet, and he felt emotionally drained. He licked his dry lips. Thirsty. He was so thirsty. An image of an empty canteen sprang into his mind and he groaned. Damn! He was hot. Where was his horse?
His muddled brain tried to sort out all the questions that sprang into his head. He moved his head slowly, looking around him to remind himself where he was. His eyes found his horse, not far away, chewing on some grass. He closed his eyes as relief flowed through him. At least he didnt have to walk to the high ground; Chris would have found him for sure. He started towards the grazing animal, his legs feeling like lead, and it took a lot of effort just to put one foot in front of the other.
Reaching his target, he rested his hot head against the horses neck. He began to cough again, making his horse raise its head and whinny at the sudden noise.
"Oh God! Please help me!" he said aloud as he moved his aching head away from the startled animal. Heck! His Ma would not be pleased with him, if she heard him taking Gods name in vain. She had been a God fearing woman. A wry smile formed momentarily on his lips. Well, he could see why she feared God now! All the bad things he threw at people. But, she would have tanned his hide if she knew what he was thinking!
The thought of a tanning reminded him of an orphanage. He tilted his fevered head to one side. That got him to thinking some more. In what part of his life had it happened? When exactly had he lost his faith?
All at once he was angry with himself. You sorry excuse for a man! he thought in disgust. What had happened to Vin Tanner? The proud Texan who strived, constantly, to live up to his name with pride, like his Ma had told him to.
Taking a long, deep breath, he made himself stand upright. Putting his foot in the stirrup, he pulled himself into his saddle.
His fevered mind tried to make sense of his thoughts as he urged his horse forward into a trot. What was he doing, asking God for help? Why was he talking to someone he no longer believed existed? He would have to put Josiah straight about that, tell him that he was wrong.
Josiah. A picture of the ex-preacher came into his mind. A gentle giant was how some people described him. Boy! He would love to have him by his side right now. His voice, full of wisdom, helping him through this turmoil he had created for himself.
His heart felt as though it fell a little nearer to his stomach as he remembered that Josiah had been in the jail too, listening as Buck read his private words aloud.
Feeling defeated, he lowered his head, letting his horse take him to the safety of the high ground.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra remained silent as JD continued to relate to Nathan the events leading up to Vins departure, his mind wandering back to the events leading up to this unfortunate outcome.
It had been his idea that had started this path of destruction. Events would not have unfolded this way if he had stayed, lurking in the background, as he usually did.
But no! He had to interfere! He still did not clearly know what had made him leave the card game that fateful night, to track down Vin, in an attempt to help him with his problem. But he now wished he had stayed firmly ensconced around that lucrative table and left Vins problems for Chris to sort out. After all, everyone knew the two men had a special bond. Chris knew how to deal with Vin.
Yes, he should have left it to Chris. Things would never have turned out the way they had if he hadnt been such a damn fool as to think he could actually help someone.
But now he had a promise to keep.
JD had just finished telling Nathan what had happened when Ezra, who had been silent throughout, caused them to look at him, as he spoke. "Does anybody know where I might find Mr Larabee?" He asked as he got to his feet.
"He was on his way to the livery when I saw him Ezra." Nathan answered, sensing an urgency in the gambler.
"I must find him." Ezra stated and began walking towards the door.
Nathan caught hold of his arm as he passed him. "You intend to ride out after Chris and Vin?" he asked.
"Indeed I do, Mr Jackson." Ezra replied, almost distractedly. "If you would kindly release my arm, I can be on my way."
"Not on your own you aint Ezra. Im comin along too. Lord knows what kind of state Vins gonna be in when we track him down. What with that cough hes so intent on keepin an all."
The two men stared at each other, Nathans eyes daring the gambler to argue with him.
"Well then, Mr Jackson. We had best go and saddle our horses post haste, if we intend to track them successfully. There is not much daylight left, and I have no intention of waiting until morning."
Nathan turned to Josiah, who nodded.
"Go and find our troubled Brother and bring him home." he said. "Me and John Dunne can take care of things here until you get back."
Ezra, who had been standing impatiently in the doorway, grabbed Nathans arm. "Hurry, Mr Jackson! We need to leave. Now!"
"I have to get some things from the clinic."
"Well you do that while I saddle the horses."
JD and Josiah, who were left standing in the Sheriffs office, listened to the fading voices, as the two men continued to argue as they made their way up the street.
They couldnt stop the small smiles from appearing on their faces.
+ + + + + + +
"Oh my darlin! Oh my darlin! Oh my darlin Clementine!" Buck sang as he rode along on his horse, waving the almost finished bottle of liquor in the air in time with his singing.
He knew he was drunk. Hell! He was more than drunk, he was completely and utterly inebriated! But, the liquid had numbed his senses, and his feelings. He no longer felt that his chest would snap in two every time Vins face came into his mind. He was on a mission now. He was going to find Vin Tanner and he was going to make everything alright again.
He wanted to see the young Texan smile that devastating smile of his that had been absent for so long. The one Vin didnt know he had. The one that made any lady in the vicinity swoon if she caught sight of it. Yes, the smile Buck was so jealous of! Thats what he wanted to see again. And soon.
He didnt know which way to ride, so he just pointed his horse and let the animal take the lead. Hed catch up with Vin eventually, he was sure of that. Heck! How big was this country anyway? He creased his forehead at that question. On second thoughts, maybe he should have some kind of plan.
He caught sight of something in the distance, which made him sit to attention in his saddle. He squinted, trying to focus his blurry vision. There was something lying on the ground. Buckskin! He could make out buckskin! "Vin." He said softly. Securing the bottle in his saddlebag he urged his horse forward, his heart hammering in his chest.
As he approached, his heart sank. It was dry branches that had fallen from a tree. He giggled. Lord! He must be drunk!
Kicking his horse with his heels he urged the animal into a gallop. "Yihaw!" He yelled as he pulled his hat off his head and held it in the air. "Im here Vin! Come and shoot me pard! I know ya want to!"
Five minutes down the road, the drunken euphoria had left him, and he slid, unconscious, from his horse, to the ground.
+ + + + + + +
JD and Josiah were sitting outside the jailhouse. They had seen Nathan and Ezra ride out, still looking as though they were having a disagreement.
Josiah chuckled. "Maybe its not such a good idea for those two to take this journey together." He mused.
JD remained quiet at his side. Now all the hubbub of the day had calmed down he was reflecting on what had happened. Josiah did not miss the fact that his companion was silent. Turning to look at the young sheriff he asked. "Is there something you need to talk about Brother?"
JD looked at the preacher in disbelief. "How can you ask that Josiah?"
"So, youre worried about our friends."
Josiah sighed and looked around the town. "Yes I am John Dunne. But they will all find each other again."
"I hope so. I miss them. The way they usually are I mean."
Josiah looked around at JD. "Yes Boy. I know what you mean." He said softly.
For a few minutes they were silent, both lost in their own thoughts.
"Will Vin be alright? Will he be Vin again after all this is over?"
Josiah was not sure how to answer the question. He hoped beyond anything that things would return to normal when this unfortunate incident was all straightened out. But, would Vin be the same Vin they had all come to know? He certainly hadnt been himself for a while now, even before all this mess happened. "Hes lost his faith in people JD. Something he truly believed in has been squashed because of what he thought happened in that room today." He motioned his head to the jailhouse behind him.
JD thought on Josiahs words for a while. He was not going to give up on Vin. No! Not Vin Tanner! He was his friend, and he was going to fight to keep that friendship.
"Then we gotta help him get his faith back." He stated with a determined nod.
Josiah looked up at the sky, the glimmer of a smile on his face.
"Amen! to that Brother!" he said. "Oh Yes! Amen! to that!"
+ + + + + + +
Chris had finally got back on the right track. He had ridden for a few miles once he reached the outskirts of town before he realised that he was not going the same way Vin had.
He was tired and frustrated, and all he wanted to do was find the scrawny Texan and get them both back to town.
He looked up at the sky, it would be dark quite soon; he would have to make camp. He looked around him at the terrain. In the distance, he could see some high ground. Yes. Thats where Vin would go, he was sure of that. He would keep going for a while and then carry on in the morning. Even Vin would have to stop for the night, so there was no worry of him getting too far ahead.
He caught sight of something, lying on the ground, just ahead of him. Pulling his horse to a stop he jumped from his saddle and went down on his haunches to see what it was.
"Damn you Tanner!" he exclaimed out loud as he picked up the trackers empty canteen. "What the hell are you thinking."
One thing was sure, Chris thought as he stood, scanning the area around him. Vin certainly was not thinking straight. If he had been he would never have thrown his canteen away. He could have filled it at the next watering hole he came to.
Chris was really worried now. Vin was not being careful. There could be Bounty Hunters all over the place.
He gritted his teeth to bite back the anger he could feel rising in him. He was gonna shoot Vin and put him out of his misery. Thats what he was gonna do! He felt guilt take over from anger. Hell! He just wanted to find him. Yes! And when he did he was gonna drag his sorry hide back to town.
Agreeing silently with himself, he went to mount his horse, when something else in the dirt just ahead of him caught his attention. But this time it was moving. With the lightening speed that had made him famous, he reached for his guns and shot the lethal snake twice, before it had a chance to spit its forked tongue from its mouth.
Chris watched the reptile for a few more seconds before he re-holstered his firearms. Satisfied that the creature was indeed dead, he climbed back into his saddle and moved off in the direction he was sure Vin had taken.
+ + + + + + +
Vin was so tired he could hardly keep his eyes open. But, sleeping was not an option. Not yet anyway. He had reached the beginnings of the high ground and decided he would make camp when it was too dark to see ahead of him. He knew there were steep drops all around him, and didnt relish the idea of falling down one.
He rode along, happy for the silence around him. It was only broken when the dreaded cough decided to attack him, making him wish he had water.
Suddenly, somewhere behind him, two gunshots rang out. His already spooked horse reared its head and front legs into the air and began to gallop, at break neck speed, across the rough terrain.
Vin desperately tried to regain control of the frightened animal as, looking ahead, he saw that the ground stopped abruptly in the distance, signalling the fact that there was a steep drop beyond it.
Pulling hard on the reins, with strength he didnt know he had, he eventually felt the horse beneath him begin to slow down. Leaning low over the horses neck he whispered in the beasts ears as it slowly came to a standstill only feet away from the edge.
Vin slowly dismounted, disorientated by the events of the last few minutes. He rubbed his fevered brow against the horses mane, resting it there as his head pounded relentlessly. "Its alright boy." he whispered soothingly to his horse. "Theres nothing to be afraid of now."
Stepping back from his now quiet horse, his eyes went wide as he felt only air beneath his foot. As it dawned on him what was happening he made a desperate grab for his horse, to try to stop the inevitable from happening. But he was too late, his horse was spooked and ran off once more, as he felt himself fall, rolling and hitting rocks, bouncing off of them as he tumbled down the rocky hillside.
He was unconscious before he finished his descent, laying still and silent at the bottom of the ravine.
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