Battle Scars

by Cmurph

"Vin," called Nettie over her shoulder as her eyes scanned the horizon. He was putting the finishing touches on a new door for her smokehouse in her side yard. As he heard her voice he stopped what he was doing and looked out to where the woman was facing.

Chris was coming. Vin grabbed his shirt from the fence post and carried it with him as he walked towards Nettie.

"Best get it done," he said, patting her shoulder gently.

"Now remember - that man’s your friend. Don’t let nothin’ come between you," she said.

"I don’t aim to."

Chris rode up to Vin and dismounted. He walked forward, holding the reins in his hand. He looked over Nettie’s place, at the work Vin had done.

"Chris," Vin said simply.

"Vin," he answered, nodding. "What’s this about?"

That was Chris, Vin smiled, get right to the point.

"Oh, I think we both know what this is about, cowboy," Vin answered honestly.

"I’m sorry about the other day," Chris acknowledged. "I should’ve prepared Wil more, told him more about my friends before I just started introducing him around. That was my mistake. Don’t blame him."

"I don’t blame anyone, Chris," Vin argued. "I killed men in the Union army. I killed men who could’ve been your friends. Hell, Chris, I could’ve even killed your brother - we both fought along the Kansas-Missouri border. You and I got past that long ago ‘cause it’s done for both of us. But Wil…"

"It’s over for him, too, you heard him."

"Chris - that don’t change the fact…,"

"…that you don’t want to be in the same town with my brother?"

Vin shook his head calmly.

"I don’t want anythin’ to ruin your visit with him."

"And you figure if you stay in town somethin’s bound to get ruined?"

"I ain’t got so many friends to risk losin’ ‘em like that," Vin answered evenly.

"You think I’m that poor a friend as to let this come between us?"

"I think you’re too good a friend to be put in that position." Vin held his hand out. "I’ll bide my time here for a bit, come back when the business is done, alright Chris?"

Chris took the hand reluctantly. "I still think you’re wrong. And I would’ve liked you to get to know Wil better. He’s a good man. Practically raised me…but I’ll respect your thinkin’."

"Thanks, Chris," Vin said with a smile. He watched, his hand shading his eyes, as the man in black mounted his horse. Vin gave him a quick wave and Chris returned it, riding back to town.

"Alright then?" asked Nettie coming up behind him.

"I reckon," said Vin, slightly uneasy. "Might take some talkin’ after they’ve left, but I expect we’ll be o.k." He turned toward her with a smile. "That door’s almost done. How about that root cellar of yours? Didn’t you say once you wanted more shelves for your cannin’?"

"Cellar’s fine," said Nettie turning towards the house. "Nothin’ says you gotta work the whole time you’re here. Rest a spell if you want."

"I’m here now," Vin argued. "You want ‘em, let’s take a look."

"I ain’t cannin’ so much anymore now we got us a general store," said Nettie. "I reckon I got room enough."

"Let me be the judge of that," Vin said with a smile. "I don’t know as I can go too long without them pickled eggs you make. Better be sure you got room for ‘em."

"I got room a’plenty for ‘em, don’t you worry," Nettie said, her voice starting to rise.

Vin stopped her with a gentle hand. His blue eyes stared deeply into her troubled ones.

"Alright, Nettie, what’s goin’ on?"

"Ain’t nothin’ goin’ on…" she started, but could not hold the questioning look in those blue eyes.

"He’s just a boy," she said quietly

"Good Lord, Nettie," Vin said shaking his head.

"Now, Vin," she protested.

He put a hand up to stop her, then placed both hands firmly on her shoulders as he stared deeper still into her pleading eyes, right down to her stubborn soul.

"Nettie, if the army finds him, finds out you’re hidin’ him, that’s big trouble. Trouble we might not be able to get you out of. Federal trouble," Vin explained.

"So you say I should just go get that boy and turn him in to be hanged?" she asked defiantly. "I’da never believed it of you, Vin."

"Now, Nettie, that’s not what I’m sayin’."

"Isn’t it? You think they’re gonna believe that boy didn’t know what he was gettin’ himself into when he joined those other men?"

"I think that Capt. Evans is a good man. I think if we talk to him…"

"He’ll believe you just like that sheriff in Tascosa did when you told him you were innocent?"

Vin sighed deeply and took her chin gently in his hands.

"I just don’t want you gettin’ hurt, Nettie."

"Don’t you worry about me. I ain’t lived this long bein’ stupid," she said. "Ain’t the first time I’ve done this. Was hidin’ slaves before the war. That were against the law too, but I done it. Proud of it. This ain’t no different to me. That boy’s scared and hurt and countin’ on me."

"Let me talk to him," Vin said.

"You gonna try to talk him into surrenderin’?"

"I just wanna hear what he has to say," Vin explained.

"Alright," she agreed reluctantly. "But you badger that boy and I swear I’ll drop you where you stand."

Josiah and Ezra watched Chris ride back into town and waited for him in front of the saloon. The streets were in full bustle, more active than usual with the comings and goings of army personnel.

"Be kind, my friend," Josiah said to Ezra as Chris approached them. "Remember to turn the other cheek."

"Turn the other cheek my a..."

"Good morning, brother," Josiah called to Chris.

Chris nodded his head in greeting. He glanced at Ezra and rubbed the back of his neck. Ezra thought how surprised Chris would be to know that the gambler felt him to be one of the easiest players to read during a poker game. Larabee’s face was almost always impassive, but he had many body movements that spoke volumes. Like now. He always seemed to rub the back of his neck when he was nervous or upset.

"I take it you have had opportunity to discuss with Mr. Tanner the issue which was of such immediate concern so early this morning?" he asked sarcastically.

"He’s stayin’ at Nettie’s for a while," Chris answered evasively.

"I believe that was the information I gave you initially," Ezra answered.

Josiah looked meaningfully at Ezra. The gambler sighed.

"But I’m relieved to hear his location has been confirmed," he concluded, looking back at Josiah. Happy?

"Yeah, well, I’m goin’ to check in with J.D. Let him know Vin’ll be at Nettie’s if we need him," Chris said, turning to leave. He looked away from them, cleared his throat, at war with his own emotions. "Ez, about Wil yesterday, and this mornin’…"

"Think nothing of it, Mr. Larabee," Ezra interrupted.

Chris nodded to him gratefully. The two friends watched him walk away towards the jail.

"You have laid up treasures in heaven, Brother," Josiah said approvingly to the gambler.

"I’ll remind you of that collateral the next time we play poker," said Ezra dryly.

"Mr. Larabee, good morning," said Capt. Evans as Chris entered the jail. He glanced about the small room. J.D. was sitting at his desk, chewing his lip. Buck paced like a caged animal. Wil stood at ease beside the captain.

"Sgt. Larabee tells me some of my men have made a sighting just west of town," Capt. Evans explained. Chris caught the glance that Buck shot him and he tensed. What’s wrong? "I’m sending a detachment out with the sergeant this morning. See what they can find."

"Buck and me were just wonderin’ if maybe one of us should go along?" asked J.D.

"There’s no call to be involvin’ the local law, here, Captain," said Wil. "I’m sure me’n the boys can hunt down a couple murderers on our own."

"Innocent until proven guilty, sergeant, remember?" Capt. Evans reminded him. "That concept continues to elude you."

"Yes, sir," said Wil stiffly.

"Work on it," the captain ordered.

"Yes, sir!" Wil repeated.

"Still, us known’ the terrain and all…" Buck offered.

Chris tried to read his friend’s eyes. What were he and J.D. worried about?

"My men have already ridden through that area," Wil argued. "Just a few settlers out there. We’ll start with them."

Nettie, thought Chris. That’s what this is about. Would she really be crazy enough to hide one of Quantrill’s men? Crazy, no. Soft-hearted and stubborn? Another thought slammed into him with a shudder. Did Vin know this morning?

"I’d like to ride along, Wil, if you don’t mind," Chris asked.

"That’s fine with me, Mr. Larabee. Sergeant? I don’t imagine you’d have any argument with that?" he asked with a smile.

Wil flashed a smile.

Damn, thought Buck, Ezra is right. That smile just don’t feel right.

"Welcome indeed," said the sergeant, clapping Chris on the back. "The Larabee boys ridin’ together once again."

"I’ll meet you at the edge of town," said Chris. He walked Wil and Capt. Evans to the door. He turned back to Buck and J.D. as the men left.

"You know somethin’ about Nettie for sure?" he asked quietly.

"No. But the homestead they were talkin’ about sounded awfully familiar, Chris," said J.D. nervously.

"Hell, Chris, you don’t think Vin…" Buck started.

"I don’t know what the hell Vin’s doin’," Chris said, frustrated. He saw the look of concern on Buck and J.D.'s’ faces. "I’ll go with ‘em. Check it out. Make sure there’s no trouble."

"You know, he’s only thinkin’ of you, Chris," Buck reminded him. "He don’t want any trouble."

Chris sighed. "He never does. But it always seems to find him, don’t it?"

+ + + + + + +

"My family was gone. Pa died not long after I’s born. Two brothers kilt at Shiloh. Jess died in a Union prison camp. My sister done gone off and married in Tennessee. My ma died’a shock and sorrow after Sherman come through. These men come up and say ta join ‘em. I’s only 15. I swear I didn’t know they was gonna burn that farm. I tried to leave, but they said they’d turn me in a traitor if I did. Then I got hurt, horse threw me, and they left me for dead."

The young boy rambled on with wild, sunken eyes. His clothes were in tatters and he held Vin’s arm in a desperate grip. He had been talking with the boy for almost an hour, listening to him as he ravenously attacked the meal Nettie had brought. His leg was crudely set with a splint Nettie had made herself, a clean bandage covered his brow. His name was Benjamin Coates. He had told Vin of his farm, his family, a tale of sorrow similar to his own. But when he had mentioned the prison camp Vin felt a cold hand grip his heart as that same flash of memory blinded him again.

Nettie saw the blood drain from Vin’s face as the boy concluded his story.

"You believe, me don’t ya?" asked the boy desperately, his eyes searching Vin’s.

Vin drew a shaking hand across his mouth as he stared at ghosts that threatened to rise in his memory. He noticed Nettie staring at him with concern and he quickly turned back to the boy.

"I believe ya," Vin assured him. "You sure the rest of those men are gone?"

The boy nodded with wide, sorrowful eyes.

"Didn’t even stop when they seen I fell."

Vin took a deep breath and let it out slowly.

"I’ll do what I can for ya, but runnin’ ain’t the answer."

"You gonna give me up?" he asked, shaking, turning with fear to Nettie, his protector.

"Well?" she asked Vin with eyes afire.

Vin shook his head and sighed. "I ain’t gonna give you up, boy. But you gotta help yourself. Turn yourself in."

"Now why in hell would he go and do that?" Nettie demanded.

"I’ll go in with ‘im," Vin promised.

"Well there’s a comfort," Nettie said sarcastically. "Get you both strung up. I didn’t

feed and tend to you two boys just to see you both swingin’ from a rope. My eyes’ve seen too much, Vin, don’t you ask me to bear witness to that."

"He hasn’t done anything wrong," Vin insisted. "If he comes in on his own…"

"I don’t recall you havin’ done anythin’ wrong in Tascosa either but they still got your picture up in every sheriff’s office from here to..,"

"Damn it, Nettie, that’s what I’m talkin’ about!" Vin shouted. She stared at him in shock. He had never raised his voice like that to her before and she saw now for the first time the deadly man he could be when it was called for.

"Runnin’, hidin’, lookin’ over your shoulder? You want that for him?" he asked, nodding towards Ben. "Seein’ your friends suffer ‘cause‘a you? Seein’ your best friend take a bullet ‘cause you decided to stay comfortable and hid?"

"I…I guess I don’t want that," Ben said meekly. "You really think they’d listen?"

"I seen that captain. He seems like a good man. Maybe if I talk to him first…"

"Thought you were stayin’ clear of the army," Nettie challenged him, unwilling yet to give up the fight.

"Maybe I was wrong about that, too," said Vin. "Maybe I should’a…"

He was interrupted by the sound of horses riding close. Shit, he thought. Not yet.

"Stay here," he said to Nettie and Ben. "Let me talk to ‘em. I promise I won’t give ya up. If ya decide to turn yourself in after I talk to that captain I’ll stand by ya."

The boy nodded his thanks and Vin turned to confront the riders. Nettie grabbed his arm, her eyes looking for his forgiveness and his assurance.

"I’ll be back," he said, and smiled to give her comfort.

"You know this place, Chris?" asked Wil as they drew up to Nettie’s front door.

Chris nodded, a fine sweat tickling the back of his neck.

"Nettie lives here. Old lady. Good woman. She’s taken care of a few of the boys when they’ve been laid up," Chris offered. "You sure your boys saw someone around here?"

"That’s what they said," Wil answered. "Say, ain’t that one of your boys?"

Chris watched as Vin came walking from behind the house. He stood silently awaiting their approach, the familiar slouch not as relaxed as Chris had hoped. Damn, Vin, he thought, there’s someone here, ain’t there?

"Captain," Vin said as the officer approached. Vin shook his hand and moved lazily in front of the door to Nettie’s house. "Hey, Chris, Wil."

"Mr. Tanner," the captain said. "I thought you lived in town?"

"I have a wagon there," Vin affirmed. "Just helpin’ Nettie out for awhile is all."

"That so?" asked Capt. Evans. "Have you seen anything suspicious while you’ve been here?"

"Suspicious how?" asked Vin innocently.

A smile froze on the captain’s face.

"The matter we discussed in town, Mr. Tanner. Quantrill’s Raiders. My men have spotted them in the area. We’re concerned for Miss Nettie’s welfare if they’re about. May we speak with her?"

Vin glanced up at Chris, then back towards the door of the house.

"Well, she’s restin’ right now," he said. "I hate to wake her. She hasn’t said anythin’ to me about strangers. Reckon she would’a by now."

"You’re sure, Mr. Tanner?" asked the captain again.

He knows, thought Vin. But will he give me a chance?

"How ‘bout I ask her when she wakes up?" Vin offered. "Then if there’s somethin’ to tell ya I’ll come on in to town."

"Why don’t we save ourselves a trip and take a look around the place, Captain?" asked Wil, dismounting. "No need to wake the lady. We’ll be quiet as mice."

Chris eased down from the saddle and moved towards Vin.

"Well, I’d feel a mite better if ya’ll waited," said Vin, his eyes on the sergeant.

"I don’t reckon we really need your permission, boy," Wil said evenly.

"Sergeant, back to your horse," ordered Capt. Evans.

"Wil, if Vin says he ain’t seen anythin’, said Chris, looking at Vin, "then I’ll take his word for it."

Vin held Chris’ stare without blinking.

Capt. Evans gestured Wil back to his horse again.

"We’ll see you in town, then, Mr. Tanner," the captain said, mounting his horse.

"If I’ve got news for ya," Vin agreed.

"If you have news," the captain confirmed. "Coming Mr. Larabee?" he asked as the soldiers turned to leave.

"I got some business to catch Vin up on," said Chris. "I’ll see you in town."

The captain hesitated, but finally motioned his men forward. Vin watched them ride away and drew a deep breath. He turned to face Chris.

"How many she hidin’?" asked Chris.

"You askin’ as Chris or as Sgt. Larabee’s brother?"

"Damn it, Vin, I’m tryin’ to save your stubborn hide! Nettie wouldn’t take a nap in the middle of the day any more’n she’d set a rocker. You and her hidin’ men here or not?"

"Thought I heard you just give your word we wasn’t. You lyin’ then?"

"You got some nerve throwin’ that up at me when you’re the one I did it for."

"Didn’t ask ya to do it."

Chris threw a fist against the doorpost. "What the hell do you want from me, Vin?"

"Stay out of it, Chris. I’m handlin’ it."

"You’re handlin’…" Chris shouted, then turned away in frustration. He started for his horse, then stopped. Vin could see him raise and lower his shoulders, a calm returning to him. Larabee turned and walked back to Vin.

"I’d take a bullet before I’d see you hurt, Vin," he said staring hard at the tracker. "I’d ride to hell and back to clear your name in Tascosa. All you ever have to do is ask."

Vin swallowed hard. "I know that," he answered quietly. "And what I’m askin’ you now is to let me handle this."

Chris searched Vin’s eyes, then nodded slowly. He turned back and mounted his horse, grabbing the reins to turn the animal’s head back towards town. With his back to the tracker, Chris bowed his head and called out to Vin without turning.

"Be careful, Vin. I ain’t got so many friends as to risk losin’ ‘em."

Vin smiled and nodded, then went back into the house.

+ + + + + + +

They were trying to take his leg again. Vin tossed in a nightmare of memory. Spence lay dying next to him and Hinkson stood above them both, while another figure, dark in shadow, was laughing, a mad man. He woke suddenly, bolting upright in bed, the sheets soaked with sweat, his breath coming in great gulps.

"Vin?" called Nettie from the other room. "You o.k.?"

His throat was tight and dry. "Yeah," he croaked, swallowed painfully and cleared his throat, then called again. "Yeah, fine. Sorry Nettie." He got out of bed quietly and walked out the door, then sat carefully on the front porch, his arms and legs weak with fear.

The shadow. The mad, laughing shadow. The bolt of memory had shot through him, this time in his dreams where it could not be stopped with conscious effort. The netherworld of sleep where he lived again the past of pain, degradation, fear and loathing. The prison camp. The rats. The putrid death. The shadow. The mad, laughing shadow whose face had finally come to light.

Wil Larabee.

+ + + + + + +

Captain Evans slept fitfully in his tent. The events of the day played through his mind. God, how he hated this. In battle, he knew his job. Follow the enemy, face the enemy, remove the enemy. Here, in the middle of this lawless frontier, things were not so clear. There was a different code. Men banded together, not for an ideal, a country, but for reasons that were sometimes even unclear to themselves. They followed other men not because of rank, or discipline, but because they believed in them. Who they were, what they were. They lived only in the present. Men and women with secrets and scars living in a place where no one asked questions.

He gasped when a hand came out of the darkness and stole quietly across his mouth.

"It’s Vin Tanner," came the soft voice. "I need to talk to ya."

Evans nodded, recovering from his fright. The hand slipped away from his mouth.

"I’m sorry, but I wanted to talk to you alone," Vin explained.

The captain marveled at how the tracker had found his way, undetected, into his tent. How he himself had not heard or seen him enter. So much for his guards, he thought.

"What do ya do with the men you catch?" Vin asked.

"They’re sent back to Missouri for trial," said Evans.

"They get there alive?"

Evans was taken aback. He’d never thought…well, of course they got there alive. They were sent ahead with men from his patrol. Certainly they…they wouldn’t…

"I thought so," said Vin at the captain’s silence.

"Look, I don’t…" he began, "I mean, no, I’ve never accompanied a prisoner back to Missouri but I don’t believe my men are capable of cold-blooded murder."

"None of them?" Vin challenged.

Evans was beginning to make out the tracker’s features in the dark.

"If you’re hiding evidence from the United States Army you are in violation of federal law, Mr. Tanner."

"And if I turn over an innocent boy to a bunch of vengeful Union soldiers I’m guilty of murder," Vin countered.

"If he’s innocent, he’ll be released," the captain promised.

"You vouchin’ for them Captain?" asked Vin, nodding towards the soldiers outside the tent.

"I am. You have my word."

Vin moved closer to the captain, staring hard into his eyes. Evans looked back, unblinking, determined to win the tracker’s trust.

"He’s in the jail," said Vin. "We got us a territorial judge comes through regular. Due next week. He got enough pull to have a trial right here?"

"War crime’s a federal offense, Mr. Tanner. You’d need a federal judge to try him."

Vin thought for a moment. "Any objection to me goin’ along with ‘im to Missouri?"

"You’d do that?" asked the captain. "You’d go up North for a federal trial on southern war crimes?"

"I ain’t guilty of treason for fightin’ with the Confederacy. Pardon said so. And I ain’t never been one of Quantrill’s boys."

"What about Tascosa?"

"Anybody north of Kansas even hear of Tascosa?" Vin asked.

The captain nodded. "Alright. You can go along." Vin turned to leave.

"Mr. Tanner," the captain said stopping him. "You’re that sure this boy’s innocent?"

"I ain’t brought no more proof to those men in Four Corners of my innocence than he’s brought to me. I reckon I know how it feels to have someone believe in ya. Reckon I owe that to him."

+ + + + + + +

Vin spent most of the next day standing guard outside the jail. He had explained to the rest who Ben Coates was, told them his story. And if they didn’t all believe in his innocence as earnestly as Vin, at least they agreed to help protect the boy until the army was ready to leave.

The army was getting restless. Coates appeared to be the only one of the riders in the area and they were anxious to push on. Evans himself was ready to leave. Idleness was always bad within the ranks, and out here it was worse. Far from the regimen of the rest of the army, his men fell easily to drink, caring little of the threat of military discipline.

Ezra watched as one soldier after another began to drink heavily in the saloon. Buck and Josiah had visited for a time, but the gambler had become uneasy over the past several hours as he sat alone among the sea of blue.

Now a group of soldiers had become particularly boisterous and he looked nervously about him for assistance. He smiled with relief when Vin walked through the doors, ordered a whiskey and came to join him.

"What’s the matter, Ez?" he asked with a slight grin. "You’re lookin’ at me as if I was the fourth ace. These boys makin’ you nervous?"

"Nonsense," Ezra replied. "I’m merely happy to witness your return from Miss Nettie’s."

"I’ll bet," Vin said sarcastically.

Ezra nodded to the soldiers.

"Our guests appear to have imbibed beyond reason’s limits."

"Hell, Ez, you mean they’re drunk as skunks?"

"What exactly did you…" Ezra began, but stopped as he saw Vin blanch. His knuckles were white on the shot glass and the gambler looked up to see Wil Larabee enter the saloon.

"Vin?" he asked with concern.

Vin watched as Wil went to the bar, ordered a bottle, and sat down with his friends.

"Vin?" Ezra asked again, this time placing a hand on the tracker’s arm.

Tanner pulled the arm away as if Ezra’s touch had burned him. He stared at the gambler with wild eyes, his breath coming in shallow gasps.

"What is it?"

"Nothing, I…"

"Are you alright? Should I get Nathan?" the gambler insisted, this time beginning to stand.

"No!" Vin shouted. The men at the table turned to look at them. "No," he said again quietly. The soldiers turned back. All except Wil Larabee. Vin cursed as the sergeant took his glass and rose from the table, then headed towards them.

"Boys – let’s raise a glass to Vin Tanner, here," he said as he approached. "Brought in one of those Quantrill boys single-handedly without a shot fired."

"Ben’s not one of Quantrill’s," Vin replied, and Ezra saw his friend fighting to maintain control.

"Well, I guess we’ll let ol’ Uncle Sam judge that, right boy?" Wil asked.

Ezra looked around. They were the only regulators in the place. The raucous laughter in the saloon had dropped to a dead quiet.

"Perhaps, Sgt. Larabee," Ezra began politely, "you are not aware that to a Southern gentleman, indeed, I would expect to a Northern gentleman as well, the term "boy" may be considered derogatory."

"Leave it be, Ez," Vin said quietly. He turned to the sergeant. "That’s why I’m ridin’ along. To see that ‘Uncle Sam’ gets to hear his story."

"What’re you implyin’, boy," said another soldier. There were four of them now, who had slowly come to surround the table. Ezra swallowed hard and placed his hands on the table before him, twisting the cuff of his jacket to clear it from the derringer he carried.

Vin stood and turned to face the soldier who had spoken to him.

"Nothin’," Vin said. "Let’s just leave it fellas, o.k.?" he asked, his palms spread before him.

Without warning the soldier behind Vin swung him around and landed a fist squarely on his jaw. Ezra shoved the table away, pushing two of the men off balance as Vin fell, his head cracking sickeningly on the table leg, then snapped his derringer into his hand. Wil Larabee didn’t move, but flashed him an evil smile that chilled his blood.

"Gentlemen, please," Ezra said, brandishing the weapon casually. "Perhaps a little strong coffee is in order?"

Buck and J.D. appeared at the door, Buck rushing in as he noticed Vin on the floor. J.D. pulled his gun.

"You o.k. Vin?" he asked over his shoulder as Buck helped him up.

"Yeah," Vin answered as he saw Capt. Evans enter with Chris.

"Mr. Tanner!" the captain called, "What’s happened here?"

"Slipped," said Vin as Buck turned his jaw to look at the dark bruise that had already begun to rise, the blood trickling down from his scalp.

"Like hell…" Buck said. His eyes blazed with anger as he looked to Chris – you see this?

"I believe we all could use a breath of fresh air," said Ezra, snapping his derringer back into place.

"Any of my men not back at camp in the next ten minutes will be court-martialed," said Captain Evans as the men grudgingly left the saloon.

"Do you wish to press charges, Mr. Tanner?" he asked Vin.

"I slipped," he repeated.

"As you wish, Mr. Tanner," the captain said as he turned on his heel and left.

"You sure you’re o.k.?" Chris asked with concern as Vin wiped blood away with the handkerchief Buck had offered him.

"Mr. Larabee, this attack was in no way provoked," Ezra began hotly. "And it is my…"

"Forget it, Ez," Vin said, working his jaw. "Just a little too much liquor runnin’ that’s all," he said to Chris, shrugging his friend’s hand off his jacket.

"You wanna see Nathan?" asked J.D.

"Hell no," Vin said. "I’m goin’ to bed. Josiah watchin’ Ben?"

"Yeah. Just started," answered Buck.

"I’ll take first watch in the mornin’ then," Vin said, heading out the door.

Buck watched the tracker leave.

"Chris – what the hell is goin’ on around here?" he demanded.

"I don’t know," said Chris. "But I’m damned sure gonna find out."

He had passed several of the tents as men eyed him suspiciously. Evans had given him permission to talk to Wil and now he looked for him among the hostile glares of the soldiers.

"Chris!" called Wil from the edge of the camp. "Here!"

The gunfighter walked over to his brother, taking a proffered seat near the fire. His brother sat next to him, his rifle resting on his lap.

"Expectin’ trouble?" Chris asked, nodding towards the rifle.

"The boys got a little riled, is all," Wil explained nonchalantly. "Just makin’ sure we keep the peace, lawman," he smiled.

Chris nodded but couldn’t find a smile.

"What happened back there?" he asked.

"Just a little rough-housing," Wil said dismissively. "You ain’t gonna tell me you’re worried about that friend of yours, are you? He looks to be able to take care of himself in a fight."

"He can. When he has to. But he doesn’t like to. Makes me suspicious then, when he gets into a fight for no reason."

Wil turned to look at Chris.

"You just got a few awfully tetchy friends, Chris," he said.

"Funny how the only tetchy ones seem to hail from the south."

"What’re you sayin’ Chris?"

"I’m sayin’ I don’t want to hear about any more trouble with my friends."

"I don’t want trouble with your friends, Chris, God a’mighty! I’m just here doin’ my duty, spendin’ some time with a brother I thought I’d lost. Plain and simple. I never raised you with no prejudices, did I?"

"No," Chris agreed.

"Took care of you right proper I did! Never got myself married, never took off wanderin’, stayed right by ya ‘til the army called us both."

"I know."

"Now, if I got some trouble with murderin’ bastards like Quantrill’s Raiders, want to bring ‘em to justice, I don’t suppose that’d make me a monster, would it?"

Chris shook his head. "If they’re guilty of murder they should be tried and hung. I got no trouble with that."

"If they’re guilty? You ever seen their work, Chris? Seen what those filthy, murdering bastards done in places like Lawrence? Civilians, Chris. Husbands, sons, brothers – ain’t done nothin’ and Quantrill come in there burnin’ and shootin’. Now we gotta babysit one of ‘em in that jail of yours."

Chris listened, watching with a cold fear as he saw Wil’s eyes burn with vengeance, his lips curled into an ugly snarl, his voice grating and wild.

"You should’a seen some of them in the prison camp," he continued. "Gone and killed good men, then when it’s come time to pay the price they beg on you for their lives. Hardly had us enough to feed our own troops, never mind feedin’ those damn rebel bastards. Then they got the gall to complain about it. Gotta beat the whining out of ‘em. "

Damn blue-belly prison guards...feedin' us swill that ain't fit for a dog. Then they beat ya for complainin'.

The words raced through Chris’ head clear and hard. Vin. Wil. The Missouri prison camp. Now he remembered the look in Vin’s eyes – that haunted, desperate fear he remembered seeing once before. In Correyville. Good God.

Chris was suddenly aware that Wil had stopped talking and was rising next to him.

"Wil?" he asked. "Where you goin’?"

"I got guard duty," he said suddenly. "I’ll see you tomorrow."

Chris watched him disappear into the night, his heart racing, mind reeling, a feeling of cold hard fear forming in his stomach.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah sat in the jailhouse with his lone prisoner. The boy was scared and welcomed the former preacher’s comforting words. They had talked a lot about Ben’s family and in the waning hours of the evening Josiah had come to believe in his innocence as much as Vin.

"So this Vin is gonna go with me?" Ben asked for the third time.

"I told you, brother, he has given his word. He’ll see you safe to Missouri. You tell them there just like you told me and I believe you’ll be alright."

"Sure would like to see my sister again. Ruth’s the only family I got left now. Maybe when we get to Missouri your friend’ll help me write her to come see me there?"

Josiah thought of Vin’s continuing struggle to master the written language. How proud the tracker would be to help the boy write a letter, no matter how simple the message may be.

"I’m sure he would," Josiah said.

"Josiah?" Chris called from the doorway. The preacher excused himself and walked to the door.

"Buck and J.D. are both ridin’ patrol tonight," said Chris as Josiah joined him on the front porch.

"That sounds like a good idea," said Josiah. "They told me about the saloon."

Chris nodded grimly.

"I been out to their camp. There’s a lot of unrest out there," Chris said, gazing out into the darkness. "I need to tend to some things out at my place. You think the three of you can handle this?"

"I’m sure we’ll be fine," Josiah answered. He peered at Chris through the darkness. "I assume Brother Vin is also in town tonight?"

Chris nodded.

"He wasn’t hurt too bad?" Josiah asked.

Chris shook his head.

The preacher waited.

"What the hell do you want from me Josiah?" Chris asked angrily.

"Just thought you might want to talk, brother."

"It wasn’t Wil that hit him," Chris said in explanation. "I ain’t gonna call down the whole army tryin’ to find out who threw the punch."

"I don’t think anyone expects you to."

"But you all want me to take sides between Wil and Vin."

"No," Josiah said quietly. "I believe, though, that we are drawing lines ourselves and just want you to know where we stand."

"And when it all comes down I’m gonna have to choose which side of that line I’m on. My brother’s or yours, right?" Chris challenged.

"I’m prayin’ it won’t come down to that."

"You think it’s easy for me to go in there and see him holdin’ back with all this goin’ on? Damn it, Josiah he’s as much a brother to me as Wil. I’m tryin’ to protect him in all this, tryin’ to back his play. He’s out there hidin’ this kid with Nettie, talkin’ to the captain on his own, standin’ with Ezra in bar fights, he ain’t helpin’ things any!"

"As I understand it, he talked to the captain to try to keep you out of it, he and Ezra were attacked in the bar, Vin didn’t throw a punch, and as for helpin’ that boy," he said jerking his head towards the jail, "seems to me you’d be the last person to damn him for defendin’ the underdog."

"So what am I supposed to do?" Chris asked in frustration.

"Keep your eyes open, watch his back, be a friend to him," said Josiah calmly. "Same as always."

"God, I hope that’s enough, Josiah."


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