by The Buffalo Gals

Six Weeks Later

The two mules pulled the heavily laden wagon through the gates of the hacienda. Mano, driving the wagon, halted the animals outside the barn. He then helped his daughter down from the vehicle.

They’d been to El Paso to buy grain and provisions to last them through the winter. Purgatorio had ample supplies of drink and women, but everything else was either brought in or stolen.

Looking around for some assistance in unloading the supplies, Mano found the house and yard empty. He couldn’t expect his wife or daughter to help so shrugging in defeat, he began to unload the sacks of grain himself.

It was exhausting work for the elderly man and he soon had to sit down; his arms and back aching with exertion. Calderone crept up on the unsuspecting man and kicked him on the shin. "No time to sleep you old fool!" he said gruffly.

"Not sleeping patron." The Mexican waved a hand to the laden wagon, "I could do with some help. Perhaps one of your men …"

"My men aren’t your servants. But …" Leaving Mano to catch his breath, Calderone strode over to Vin’s cage and taking hold of the chain hanging from Vin’s collar, dragged him out, "Here’s your help, old man."

"Him! He isn’t strong enough to …" Mano became silent when Calderone’s glare nailed him,

" Si patron."

"You have to show him." Calderone’s riding whip caught Vin across the arm and the young man yelped, backing away from the whip and its owner.

Calderone tightened his hold on the chain and yanked him forward. "You! Will unload this!" He pointed to the wagon, then passed the whip to Mano, "And you will beat him with this if he starts to slacken."

Mano took the offered whip, holding it as if it were burning his fingers.

"Let me see you at work," Calderone smirked, standing casually next to the wagon.

Vin now had two ‘masters’. What were they expecting of him?

Mano smacked the sack of grain with the leather; the thwacking noise gained Vin’s attention. "These, go in there!" The Mexican pointed to the storehouse.

Comprehension came slowly to the young tracker, and eventually he took hold of the first sack and placed it on his shoulder. The weight of the grain brought him to his knees. Groaning, he forced himself back to his feet and stumbled over to the storeroom. When he returned, Calderone ordered Mano to slap Vin on the rump with the whip.

"But why?" Mano asked. He never used unnecessary cruelty on any of his beast.

Not bothering with an answer, Calderone snatched the whip from him and lashed it across Vin’s buttocks and legs. The young man yelped as he rubbed the stinging flesh; wondering what he’d done to deserve the punishment.

"Keep him on his toes!" Calderone explained to his servant, "You’ll make him idle." He handed the whip back. Then dusting the dirt from his jacket, walked off, "I’ll be in the cantina if you need me. But I don’t think he’ll cause you any trouble." Passing close to Vin, Calderone raised his hand, laughing cruelly when the shackled man cowered away from him.

By the time Vin had unloaded the supplies, his legs and backside were raw. He was desperate to lie down, but daren’t move until he was told. Mano entered the store and was surprised to find the sacks and boxes neatly packed away. The slave had done a good job. He’d be worth using in the future for any heavy work. Seeing that Vin was barely managing to stand, Mano led him back to the cage and shoved him inside. The welts across the back of Vin’s legs looked sore and probably needed attention, but it was getting late. Rosa would soon be calling Mano in for his supper and the mules still needed tending to. The boy would just have to suffer.

Vin crawled onto the soft mound of hay that was his bed and lay down on his stomach. He ached from head to toe; he was hungry and dehydrated. The ground beneath him spun, causing him to retch dryly. After a while he fell into an exhausted sleep, where even his dreams were filled with pain and cruelty.

+ + + + + + +

It had been a long time since Chris Larabee had entered a church to pray. He’d never taken much interest in Josiah’s renovation of the building; often wondering why the preacher bothered so much about it. Most of the inhabitants of Four Corners didn’t.

Removing his hat as he walked up the aisle, Chris shivered. He felt a fraud, asking God to help him when only a few years before he’d denied God and heaven loudly and often, berating any deity that would let innocent women and children suffer.

Siting down on the front pew, he bowed his head and tried to find the right words to say. But what if God declined to help him now and ignored his pleas?

"Dear God, help me."

"Need some company?" Josiah asked as he walked over to the blond.

"Don’t know where else to turn, Josiah. Guess God’s my last hope."

It sounded ugly, said like that, but Josiah understood: he too had been at loggerheads with his beliefs for many years. Yet once he’d hitched up with six other wandering souls he’d found himself more settled. There were still demons, some that could never be put to rest, but overall life was good.

"He’s always there, Chris. Sometimes we just don’t want to see him. I’ve had my moments." The preacher sat down next to the blond and waited silently for the gunslinger to continue.

"Someone knows where Vin is. He ain’t just vanished off the face of the earth."

"I don’t know what to suggest Chris. We’ve been over the same territory again and again. Has Mary heard anything more from the judge yet?"

Chris shook his head. "No, but he’s due in town at the weekend. It’s six weeks Josiah, we should have heard somethin’ by now."

Oren Travis had been asking around as he visited different parts of the territory as circuit judge.

The older man sighed as he sat back and looked heavenwards. He knew that the others had been talking amongst themselves. Expressing quietly their thoughts about the missing tracker. Seriously doubting if their friend was still alive. Thoughts that could not be spoken in front of Chris Larabee, in fear of painful retribution.

"I’ve prayed for Vin every night Chris, however, I don’t feel him. But you do, don’t you?"

"Can’t explain in Josiah. But yeah, I do. I ain’t givin’ up on him." Larabee smiled wearily.

" Just can’t expect you and the others to continue with the search."

"We’ll keep goin’ as long as needed." Josiah patted Chris on the shoulder.

"No, not anymore. I want you to get the boys together. We’ll meet at the saloon in an hour."

"Chris .."

"Don’t worry Josiah, I’m doin’ the right thing. Now, if you don’t mind. I’d kinda like to spend some time alone."

"Sure …… One hour." The preacher’s heart ached for the gunslinger. Larabee was as lost as the missing tracker.

Four men waited for their leader to appear. Josiah had already appraised them of Chris’ intention which they’d negated; unanimously. Until the preacher had reminded them of their previous doubts.

"Ain’t the same thing," Buck argued, "We cain’t let him go off on his own."

"I agree!" JD squeaked, "We’re in this together."

"I don’t like the idea of Chris goin’ off on his own." Nathan brooded as he contemplated the mental state of their colleague.

The only one to show any agreement with Larabee’s idea was Ezra.

"Mr. Larabee is not a functioning member of this peace keeping group at the moment. His diligence and duty to Four Corners has deserted him and I do not think it will return, until Mr. Tanner’s whereabouts has been identified. Even if it be a posthumous resting-place. It is therefore prudent to allow our illustrious leader a free rein in his search, without being encumbered by our persistent presence."

"Couldn’t have put it clearer myself."

The men at the table had been so engrossed in their conversation, they hadn’t seen Chris arrive.

"Now listen here, Chris," Buck began, being halted immediately by Larabee.

"No, you listen. I’ll be able to move faster alone. And maybe I’ll get someone to talk to me." "Yeah, and maybe you’ll end up with a bullet in your back, cos we ain’t there to watch it."

Chris settled onto the empty chair opposite Buck and took a swig of the beer, brought over to him by Inez. "I ain’t dumb, boys," he said eventually, "I know you think Vin’s dead."

"Chris …"

"S’okay, Buck. I ain’t angry. But if you went along with me, you’d be doin’ it fer me, not Vin."

"What are your expectations of us," Ezra asked.

"To take care of Four Corners, just like you’ve been doin’." Chris finished off his beer. "I’ll be back as soon as I can."

"You goin’ now?"

Chris nodded at Nathan; "Saddlebags are packed. Buck, tell Mary …"

"She’ll understand Chris. She’s a strong woman," Buck called over to Inez, indicating for another round of drinks, "Got time for one more?"

"Sure. One for the road."

+ + + + + + +

Huddled in the serape Mano had given him, Vin languished in one corner of his cage: oblivious to the storm raging around him. His ‘home’ gave him no protection against the elements, and as fall slipped into winter, his few remnants of clothing could not restrain the evening chills.

Not that it mattered to Vin; nothing mattered anymore, not even his name. He’d become the ‘thing’, the butt of cruel jokes. Taunted by adults and children alike. His days passed in infinite pain. Pain from beatings, cigar burns and any other form of torture Calderone and his men could think of.

The only people to show any form of compassion towards him was Mano and his wife. Though even they looked upon him as a beast rather than human. It was on the elderly man’s shoulders to keep Vin alive and he did so by keeping the young man fed and clean.

Every day Vin would sit passively while Mano washed and shaved him, then he’d eat the dish of gruel handed to him. There were no utensils, so Vin ate straight from the plate, licking it clean of every morsel. Then once a week, Mano and his wife would tie him to the fence post and wash him down like they would a horse or mule.

Vin no longer thought about escape or rescue. His memories of Chris, Buck and the others were pushed into the deepest recesses of his mind. His thoughts now were concentrated on the basics of food and water, plus warmth, if any could be found. But as the storm raged through the night, Vin’s conception of warmth faded.

He didn’t notice the old man walking towards his cage; he didn’t notice the lantern held high as Mano walked over to him.

"If you stay here, you’ll die. Then my family will suffer." Mano moaned out loud as he carefully took hold of the chain and led him towards the barn.

There he refastened the chain to anvil, knowing Vin wasn’t strong enough to carry it if he did consider escaping. But as soon as the young man saw the hay, he lay down on it, curling up at Mano’s feet; falling asleep within minutes.

Calderone was furious the following morning when he found the cage empty. His temper was already frayed from a lack of sleep due to the storm and he needed to vent his rage to rid himself of the gnawing headache he was suffering.

Whipping the tracker always eased his tension, so he’d picked up the bullwhip and marched over to the cage, yelling obscenities at the young man; knowing he’d find Vin cowering in one of the corners of the pen.

But the cage was empty. The bedding that Vin used in tending to his personal needs, cleaned out and fresh hay put down.

"Mano! Dammit old man, where are you? " The veins on Calderone’s temples stood out and his fists clenched.

"Here, patron." Mano scurried out of the barn, "I was just …"

"Where is he? Have you allowed him to escape? You fool!" Calderone raised his hand, ready to strike the old man down.

Mano cowered away, explaining, "He’s in the barn, patron."

"Barn! Why?"

"The storm last night. I was afraid he would get sick and die." Mano stared bravely at his master, "You do not wish him dead."

"True enough. " He lashed out at the old man and toppled him to the ground, "But from now on, you ask my permission about anything concerning him, do you understand?"

"Si patron."

"Then get out of my sight. I have a headache. A bit of fun should ease it." Smiling evilly, Calderone stroked the soft leather of the whip. Soon it would be bloodied from Vin’s wounds.

Mano hurried back into the house. His wife would have her work cut out once Calderone had finished with the prisoner.

Mano had gently cajoled Vin into removing the damp clothes so that they could be washed and dried. He’d been given an old horse blanket to wrap around him.

Vin wolfed down his breakfast, his fingers and lips sticky with gruel. He liked this new place. The barn was warm and dry and there was plenty to take his attention. A pair of mules occupied two of the stalls and they stared at him with the same curiosity he gave to them. Chickens ran free. One hen had a clutch of baby chicks following her around which fascinated the prisoner. He was still attached to the anvil but had enough chain to move around a little.

When he’d first heard Calderone’s angry voice Vin had gone scurrying into the shadows. That voice meant one thing …. Pain!

Calderone kicked the barn door open, causing the chickens to scatter and the mules to recoil. "Where are you slave?" the Mexican snarled, kicking barrels and buckets over in a bid to reach his prey.

Vin shoved himself deeper against the wall and the slight movement caused the chain to rattle.

Calderone turned sharply and saw the chain fastened to the anvil. He walked over to it and began to pull Vin towards him.

"Scared, are we?" Unfastening the chain from the anvil, he dragged Vin out into the sunlight, tearing the ragged blanket from Vin’s emaciated body.

Vin was fastened up short to a hitching rail then the beating began. Lash after lash caught the young man’s back, buttocks and legs. He tried to protect himself but was unable to. Tears soon streamed down his face and he sobbed softly. The more he cried, the more violent the attack became until Calderone’s anger was finally spent.

Walking over to the injured man he spat at him before kicking him in the ribs, "You are nothing! Less than nothing! Mano! Take him back to his cage."

"Si patron." Mano hurried towards Vin, wondering how he was going to get him back there. Finally he called to his wife and together they half carried, half dragged the poor unfortunate Vin over to the cage. Once inside the cage, Vin reached out a shaking hand to Mano, his blue eyes begging for something. Help, comfort, he didn’t know what.

Mano sadly shook his head, "I wish I could," he muttered as he went to gather water and cloths to wash and clean the young man’s latest wounds.

+ + + + + + +

Chico chased Juanita into the barn, both of them giggling. Their heads giddy after drinking too much wine. Juanita liked Chico’s company. All of the other men were much older and when their eyes lingered over her pert, curvaceous body, she shuddered in disgust. Chico was fun and with Calderone and the rest of the gang drinking themselves senseless in one of the cantinas, the young couple found time to enjoy themselves.

Pulling her down onto the hay, Chico started tickling the girl causing her to giggle even louder.

"Sshh!" He put a finger to her mouth, "We don’t want your papa to find us."

"True, he does disapprove of you."

"It’s because Calderone wants you for himself."

"Ha! Even he isn’t good enough for me in papa’s eyes. No one is." Juanita stopped talking as her eyes adjusted to the darkness, "Wonder where he is?"

"Who? Calderone … your papa?" Chico asked as his hands wandered over her willing flesh.

"Him …. Calderone’s pet. Ve’en or something like that."

"He’s in here? What about his cage?"

"Papa told Don Sebastian that if the creature stayed out in the cold he’d probably die. Your patron doesn’t want him dead, yet."

"Don’t know why not. He was responsible for Calderone’s brother being hanged." Sitting up, Chico’s eyes sparkled with mischief. "Let’s have some fun with him."

Juanita scowled, "I haven’t come in here to play games with him."

"I’ll play any game you want." Chico was just about to lean down and kiss the girl when a slight movement in the far corner of the barn caught his eye. "Not sure I like being spied on," he growled, scrambling to his feet and adjusting his clothing.

"Don’t worry about him, I’m not. He’s no more to me than one of those mules."

"Yeah? Well mules need a good whippin’ now and then."

"No Chico. Leave him be. We’ll find someplace else."

"I like it here," Chico replied darkly as he knelt once more and began to kiss the girl passionately.

They soon forgot their silent companion; their kissing and groping more intent. Suddenly, Chico began to use his strength, wanting more from Juanita than she was willing to give.

"No!" she screamed as his hand began to pull up her skirt, "I don’t want …"

"Sure you do. Why else come in here with me?"

"Because I like you. But Papa …" Juanita gasped, trying to tidy up her clothes.

"Papa! He don’t scare me." Chico lunged at her, smothering her mouth with a kiss in an attempt to stop her calling out.

Struggling against her attacker, Juanita managed to push him away and shouted out, "Help me! Someone …. Please!"

It was a futile cry; she knew that. No one could hear her; no one, except ," Help! You … Ve ..en! Please … Ve…en…."

Chico, engrossed in the violent disrobing of the female didn’t hear her calling out the tracker’s name.

Crash! Something barrelled into the Mexican, flinging him to the ground. Quickly scrambling to his feet, Chico stood up to face his attacker, "You!"

The frail, half-starved creature stood between him and the sobbing girl, his long wild hair half covering his face.

"Get out of my way!" Chico snarled, launching himself at Vin, tumbling them both onto the girl.

Screaming once more, this time in pain, Juanita’s piercing squeal frightened Vin more than Chico’s assault, he panicked and lashed out indiscriminately as he tried to quell the noise.

Juanita slumped to the floor, felled by a knock to the jaw.

Chico ceased his attack and smiled as he said, "You’re in big trouble now. Mano’ll take the whip to you himself."

Gasping for breath, Vin watched Chico turn and run out of the barn, calling out Mano’s name. He turned to the figure lying unconscious on the floor. She’d called out and he’d half recognised his name and understood the terror in her voice. Now she was quiet.

Vin knelt down and shook her shoulder; perhaps she was asleep. "W … wa …ke." It had been so long since he’d spoken anything, other than ‘master’, he found it difficult to pronounce the word. Shaking her more violently, he fell back on his haunches when she groaned.


Vin turned sharply as another shrill female voice broke the silence. It was the older woman; the one who fed and bathed him. Standing up he pointed to the girl. "Hurt," he simply explained.

"My sweet bambina!" The woman stormed over to Vin, brandishing a broom, "Vamanos! Get away from her! What have you done to my baby?"

Vin stumbled away from the swishing broom. He couldn’t understand the woman’s rage.

"You animal! Attacking my chiquita!" Kneeling down uncomfortably on the dusty floor, the woman cradled her daughter’s head on her own ample thighs, "Juanita, my bambina. Please wake up for mama."

Just then three men walked into the barn. Calderone, flanked by Chico and followed by Juanita’s father. Immediately, the elderly man ran to his family, "What has happened?" he asked as he gathered his wife and daughter into his arms.

"Him!" Mano’s wife pointed to Vin, whose eyes were now transfixed on Calderone, "He’s not safe around women, patron. He should be put back in his cage."

"He will be, once he’s been punished. How’s the girl, did he rape her?"

Noticing his daughter’s dishevelled clothes, Mano looked in horror at his patron, "If he has, I’ll kill him with my bare hands!"

"Come here!" Calderone ordered Vin.

Wide eyed with fear the tracker shuffled forward, accepting he was about to be punished but not understanding the reason why.

"Did you touch that girl?"

Vin frowned; what was his master asking?

"Idiot!" Calderone slapped the young man across the face, "Did you touch her?"

"He did patron. I saw .." Crack! Chico stumbled to the ground. Calderone’s attack taking him by surprise.

"I am not asking you."

Tears welled up in Vin’s terrified eyes and he half turned and pointed shakily towards the girl, "Hurt."

"I can see that you fool! Mano, how is she?"

Anger replacing his usual fear of Calderone, Mano snapped, "She is hurting!" Lowering his voice, he soothed his wife who was near to hysterics. They both sighed with relief when Juanita opened her eyes.

"Bambina!" the older woman hugged her daughter fiercely, "What did that animal do to you?"

Sobbing against her mother’s chest, Juanita finally replied, "I … I was afraid. Ve..en pushed him away from me."

"He didn’t attack you?" Mano asked calmly, glancing over to Chico who’d got to his feet.

"No Papa. He saved me." She rubbed her aching jaw, "He was frightened, like me. His hand caught me …" She looked up and saw Chico backing out of the barn, unnoticed by Calderone. "It was Chico who attacked me!"

Calderone turned but it was too late. By the time he and Mano reached the door, Chico had vaulted onto a horse and was galloping out of the gates, scattering anyone in his path.

"This is your fault Mano!" Calderone growled as the re-entered the barn.


"Si. You should control your daughter. She is always making advances towards my men. This was bound to happen!" The Mexican stormed over to his prisoner, effectively silencing the older man from anymore arguments. "And you are more trouble .." Grabbing hold of Vin’s metal collar, he dragged him out of the barn and back to the cage. "You’ll stay in here at night from now on; whatever the weather! Mano, there is no food for him tomorrow. He’s getting too high spirited. I don’t want him getting any ideas."

"Si patron." Mano looked at the young man guiltily. The boy had saved his daughter from rape and now he was to suffer even more. It wasn’t right but hopefully after a few days, Calderone might relent and at least allow him to return to the barn.

Calderone hadn’t finished with his pet. His evening’s entertainment had been rudely interrupted by the happenings in the barn. He wouldn’t beat the girl, though she certainly deserved it for leading Chico on. He couldn’t beat Chico, he’d run away probably never to return; that left Vin. Looping the chain through the bars of the cage, he ordered Mano to fetch the bullwhip.

"A sharp lesson in obedience is necessary. It wouldn’t harm that girl of yours to have a thrashing too!"

"I will punish my daughter in my own way," Mano replied when he returned with the whip.

The whipping was brutal and frantic, continuing long after Vin had passed out.

Ashamed of himself for not having the courage to stop Calderone, Mano stood guiltily to one side, his thoughts safely locked away.

+ + + + + + +

Chris Larabee revisited all the small towns along the border with Mexico. Three long weeks, living out of the saddle. His first port of call at each town was the telegraph office. He’d send a telegram to Four Corners, always hoping that he’d receive a reply saying that Vin had returned home. Each time, his hopes were dashed.

Yet Chris’ optimism never died. He’d not been able to explain it to Josiah, but he ‘knew’ Vin Tanner was still alive and he’d never rest until he found the young man.

Deciding that he and his horse needed a break from the constant travelling Chris rode into El Paso, ready to sleep on a bed for the first time in weeks. Searching out the livery stables, he paid the hostler good money to feed, groom and settle the horse down for the night. Chris was sure he could see relief in the black gelding’s eyes.

He found a cheap but clean hotel, booked a room for the night and ordered a bath to be readied for him. Afterwards, feeling clean and relaxed he ate a well-cooked meal in the hotel’s restaurant, then he found the most unsavoury of the town’s saloons. Standing quietly at the bar he enjoyed a bottle of his favourite whisky, listening to the patrons; most of who were transients and cowboys. Maybe they’d heard about or seen the missing tracker.

+ + + + + + +

Mano swallowed the last of his wine and laughing softly at his neighbour’s bad jokes banged the tankard back onto the table. The bartender shuffled around the table, his heavy feet connecting with the scrap of humanity cowering behind Mano’s chair.

"Move away scum!" the bartender spat in Spanish at the dirty form at his feet, kicking him viciously in the thigh and making the smaller man cry out in shame.

"Let him be," Mano warned the bartender, turning in his seat to look at the young man tangled around his chair leg.

Vin Tanner’s eyes widened at Mano’s scrutiny, blue eyes vivid with fear, fixed on the elderly Mexican’s face. It was the first time Mano had taken him to the cantina. The old Mexican had thought it was time the boy be released from his life at the hacienda. Vin was no longer a threat to anyone. Calderone had enjoyed destroying the tracker’s spirit, until all that was left was the pathetic creature that inhabited the stables, often having to work harder than the two mules. Mano had asked if Vin could be allowed more freedom, promising his patron that he would be responsible for him. Calderone had agreed readily, informing the old man that he would be parading his prisoner through Purgatorio, once he returned from his next raid.

"You will train him. Like you would a dog. Teach him to respond to my orders immediately."

Mano was determined to train the young man well. Calderone would need little or no excuse to beat the boy. When Tanner had first arrived at the hacienda, Mano had not cared what happened to him. However, since he’d protected Juanita from the odious Chico, Mano and his wife had tried to make the boy’s life a little easier. Especially when Calderone was out of town.

"Hungry?" Mano asked him in Spanish.

Vin cowered away from his gaze and tried to disappear back into the dirt.

Mano reached back to his plate and picked up a slice of beef. He rolled the piece and holding it out between finger and thumb offered it to the slave. Vin’s hand reached out to snatch the morsel away. Focused as he was on the feast before him, he didn’t see the bandit next to Mano move, until the flat of his knife hit Vin on the knuckles. The young man disappeared behind Mano’s chair once more and the Mexican could feel his chair shaking with the man’s tremors

"What was that for?" he asked his neighbour.

"Don’t let him use his hands, he could attack you. Make him take the food with his mouth." The bandit frowned at Mano’s disgusted expression, "You’ll be sorry if you don’t."

Mano turned back to Vin, calling his name softly,

"Vin, come here." He heard the sharp intake of breath at the use of Tanner’s first name and was rewarded by the tracker’s reappearance from behind his seat. The metal collar around Vin’s neck an ugly reminder of his slave status.

Mano mimicked what he expected the young man to do, and smiled when he realised Vin understood what he meant. However, the tracker was afraid to make contact.

Mano sighed deeply as he watched Vin’s hungry eyes caress the scrap of food. He waited, patiently. Eventually, Tanner came forward on his haunches and watching Mano carefully, he moved close enough to take a bite of the offered meal. Mano felt Tanner’s breath fan his palm and was ashamed; no man should be put through this torment.

+ + + + + + +

Chris had moved onto another saloon. It was getting late; most of the bar’s clientele were seriously inebriated, their tongues loosened by the beer and whisky. Standing at the bar once more, the blond sipped at his liquor. There was a raucous yet friendly fight going on between three cowboys, their fists flying in all directions. At any other time Chris would be irritated by their infantile games, now he was just angry. How dare they enjoy their lives when his friend, his soul companion, was lost. It wasn’t right. Life wasn’t fair. His trigger finger itched for a fight, and Chris was just about to intrude on their boisterousness when he heard a conversation at a table close to the bar.

"Ain’t right, some snotty Mexican treating one of us like that."

"Maybe he deserves it. Just ‘cause he’s an American."

"Heard tell he looks more like an animal now. That’s how they treat him."

Chris glanced over at the two men sitting at the table. They were about his age but without his lean, guarded look. Neither of them were gunfighters, just cowboys having spent too many years on the trail, their faces jaded and weary. But maybe they had a story to tell.

Picking up his bottle and glass, Chris walked over to the men. They stared into his haunted green eyes and saw the pain there.

"Whatcha want, Mister?" the moustachioed cowboy asked, trying not to sound too antagonistic.

"Was wonderin’ what you were talkin’ about. I’m lookin’ fer a friend of mine, maybe you’ve seen him." Without being asked, Chris sat down at the table, "I’d like to buy you boys a drink."

The two men smiled. The man in black didn’t mean to kill them; yet. Hopefully, what they had to tell him would secure their lives.

An hour later, Chris was saddling his horse. It was at least a three-day ride back to Purgatory. He’d considered sending a message back to Four Corners, asking the others to meet him outside the town from hell. But on reflection, Chris decided that if it was Vin being kept prisoner there, he had a better chance of freeing him alone.

It was late when Calderone’s gang returned to the relative safety of Purgatorio. High on adrenaline from their latest raid, they turned over the cantina, drinking well into the evening.

News of Calderone’s arrival reached Mano soon after the first gunshots were heard, the noises scattering the chickens and sending Vin scurrying for cover. Hiding with Mano’s two mules in the barn he peered through a window and watched as Mano tidied up the yard. Then the old man caught sight of someone approaching. Vin followed his gaze, gasping as he saw his master striding down the dusty street towards the hacienda. Crouching down below the barred window, Vin listened to the men’s verbal exchange. The words lost on him.

"Mano old friend," Calderone greeted the old man arrogantly, slapping him on the back, "Where is the welcome for your patron?"

Mano bowed stiffly, "I mean no offence, please be seated, I will bring you food."

"No." Calderone stopped him, his eyes scanning the yard, and noticing the empty cage, "My men are in the cantina, I will eat there."

Mano bowed and began to move away.

"Stop. What of the slave, where is he?" Calderone sniffed the air.

Mano looked around the yard, his eyes setting on the barn. He didn’t need to speak; Calderone was already striding towards the building.

"Come out slave!" he demanded cruelly, hearing the gasp that left Tanner’s throat. He turned the corner and Mano watched with pity as he heard a whip crack and the two mules rush into the yard.

"There you are," Calderone laughed, "You’ve grown fat and lazy since my departure. Time I taught you a few manners." The whip cracked again and Vin cried out making Mano jump. He froze as Calderone marched out of the barn, dragging Tanner along by his collar and chain; the smaller man in a running couch, barely able to keep up, finally losing his balance and tumbling into the dirt.

"Get up!" Calderone told him harshly, kicking Vin’s shin when he didn’t respond.

Vin struggled to his knees and was dragged to his feet. He stood swaying and trembling behind Calderone as the man spoke briefly to Mano, giving him instructions about the work he needed doing, then they were off, Vin trailing his master back towards the cantina.

+ + + + + + +

Almost comatose, Vin missed the first echoes of gunshots. His attention was focused on putting one bare foot in front of the other in the shadow of his master’s fine white leather boots. Calderone entered the cantina, dragging his slave behind him. Vin stumbled into the first table; his eyes ill adjusted to the dark interior. He was pushed roughly away, careering into the back of Calderone as he stood at the bar. The bandit turned and backhanded Vin across the face, sending the smaller man to the ground. Vin got rapidly to his knees and cowered on his haunches at Calderone’s back, wrapping his arms around his middle.

The bandits were drinking heavily, fighting and harassing the working girls. Bottles were smashed, tables overturned and women groped. Vin covered his ears, unable to bear the laughter and screams. Time blurred as his senses overloaded. Occasionally he would receive a cruel kick to move him out of the way, but he survived in a mute nether world, his heart searching for a black clad man who haunted his dreams.

Calderone grew tired of his shadow; dragging Vin cruelly from his stupor he leashed the terrified man to a table leg then moved away to enjoy the company of one of the girls.

Vin drew himself into a tight ball, almost under the table and away from the drunken mob. The bandits were now very drunk and becoming violent. Laughter gave way to screams and yells, and suddenly gunfire cut the air, the sound of splintering wood and the acrid smell of gunpowder sending Vin into a frenzy.

He shot from his hiding place, streaking across the cantina floor, screaming like a wild boar. The table leg his chain was fastened to came away with his momentum, the broken table falling across the legs of the drunken bandits. Calderone turned at their cries of consternation and saw Tanner being pushed away from the cantina’s doorway. The lead bandit yelled at his men to grab the captive, but Vin squirmed away, scooting low through the drinkers and doubling back to the door as the bandits lumbered towards him. In his current state, Vin was unable to reason the whereabouts of the chain that trailed his escape. It wound itself around the legs of one of the bandits, tipping the overweight Mexican to the ground as Vin strained to reach the door.

The rest of the gang laughed at the two men’s antics and no one offered to help the bandit wrapped in Vin’s chains. To extend their entertainment they continued to fire into the ceiling, bringing mud and tiles down around their ears and filling the cantina with smoke.

Vin dragged himself desperately across the floor on all fours. His sides heaving from the effort of dragging a dead weight behind him; the man’s cries of agony loud in his ears. He didn’t know how to stop. His instincts told him to flee. Eventually, he came to a white leather wall and lay on his stomach, panting as his crazed mind told him it was his master standing before him.

"Well, well," Calderone drawled, curling his fingers in Vin’s dirty hair and hauling his head from the ground.

The bandit’s grasp was painful and Vin had nothing left to fight with. He remained passive, his eyes half closed, as Calderone berated him. Behind him, the fat bandit was moaning softly as the bartender released him from the chain. Calderone released Vin, letting the tracker’s face smash back onto the stony floor.

"Get this dirt out of here!" Calderone spat, tired of his little game, "Get him cleaned up."

Two of the bandits took hold of Vin’s arms and dragged him into the street, grumbling as they made their way back to Mano’s home. The elderly man was nowhere to be found, so they tethered Vin to the hitching rail then tried to grab hold of him. Vin shied away from their touch, scurrying under the low boards the hacienda stood on.

"Leave him, Pedro," the oldest bandit growled, throwing down the rag he’d intended using on Vin’s cut face.

Pedro peered under the boards and two wild blue eyes stared back at him.

"The patron said we should clean his wound. We should do it, my friend."

The older man grumbled, "The Patron wants the slave dead, so why should one more wound matter now."

Pedro reached under the boards but was unable to reach his prey. He sighed and spoke to Vin in Spanish, "Would be easier if you came out."

Vin crept deeper into the darkness. Pedro took hold of the chain and told his amigo to help him pull the tracker clear of his hiding place. As the two men tugged on the chain, Vin came kicking and screaming out into the open. He ran along the rail to the end of his chain then crossed towards the open gate, almost garrotting the two bandits as he reached the end of his run.

"This won’t work!" the old man cursed, getting back to his feet.

"I’ve got an idea," Pedro said, taking a biscuit from his pocket. "I’ve seen Mano feeding him this way, if I can get close enough …" He started walking towards the tracker, holding the biscuit out in front of him.

Vin turned fearful eyes upon the approaching man. Pedro stopped and waved the biscuit at him, "Come on slave, you must be hungry. Come and get it."

Vin crouched down, as he’d been taught. His stomach churned, he wasn’t hungry, but he only knew how to obey. Pedro stopped a stride away and bent towards him, cupping the biscuit in his hand.

"Good slave. That’s right. Take the biscuit." He leaned closer.

Vin closed his eyes and reached out to take the morsel of food presented to him. As he closed his teeth around the biscuit, Pedro struck out and grabbed a handful of the tracker’s hair.

Vin squealed in fright and tried to make a run, but he was at the end of his chain. Pedro twisted his fist into Vin’s hair making the tracker cry in pain.

"Get down!" Pedro yelled at him, kicking him behind the knees until Vin was kneeling. The older bandit pulled Vin’s arms down behind him and wrapped a length of rope around them.

Pedro continued to drag on Vin’s hair, calling to the older man, "Quickly, get the blood cleaned off his face, then let’s get out of here!"

Grumbling that he wasn’t a doctor, the older man struggled to wipe the congealed blood from Vin’s forehead, pleased to see that the cut wasn’t too bad. Then taking out a flask of whisky from his jacket pocket he poured some on the cloth then rubbed it into the wound causing Vin to cry out again. There were no gentle words to soothe him and once they were finished, Pedro released Vin’s hair and the injured man slumped to the ground; the two bandits leaving him without a backwards glance.

Lying in the dirt, at the extent of his chain, Vin curled into a ball and wept. It was an emotion he didn’t understand but neither could he control. He wept until his breath came in shuddering sobs, then exhausted, he drifted into a dreamless sleep.

Mano walked through the gates and up to the steps of the hacienda. After finishing the work Calderone had ordered him to do, the old man had visited with an old drinking partner and they’d sat together, drinking tequila and reminiscing over the old days. His time was his own for a few hours. His wife and daughter were away visiting family. He was thankful Juanita was out of town. She caused trouble amongst the bandits without trying and Calderone was paying far too much attention to her.

Calderone! Mano spat viciously at the very thought of the name. He was no more than a brutal thug; nothing like his father, a gentleman Mano had been proud to call patron! The old Mexican had become ashamed of himself. He was too cowardly to stand up to Don Sebastian, especially in his treatment to the young Americano.

Calderone had gone way past avenging the death of his brother; another son unworthy of his father’s name. Calderone enjoyed tormenting his ‘pet’. Particularly the mental torture. Mano found it stomach churning. Why didn’t he shoot the boy and be done with it?

As the old man placed a foot on the first step, he came to a halt. He could hear sobbing. Peering into the shadows, he saw Vin. The young man was on his haunches, rocking slowly, head in hands.


The tracker moved like lightning in his attempt to escape more pain. Trying to scurry back under the house, he froze when he was gently pulled back and a voice he recognised said quietly, "Let me take a look at you."

Vin’s muddled mind couldn’t understand the words, but he did recognise the tone. He turned and looked into the dark brown eyes of the old man.

The blood coursing down Vin’s face horrified Mano. He could smell whisky and guessed that someone had made a poor attempt at cleaning the wound. "Did he do this to you?" Mano pointed to the wound. "Calderone?" There was no reaction from the young man so Mano tried once more, "Master?"

Vin bit deep onto his bottom lip, "Master," he whispered harshly, his breathing heavy with emotion.

The old man reached out and wiped away the tears that trickled down the Vin’s face, "He won’t hurt you again." Mano couldn’t believe what he’d just said, but he meant every word.

Too weary to struggle, Vin found himself being unfastened from the hitching post and led into the hacienda.

He panicked when they passed the door leading to the cellar; he could vaguely recall spending some time in the darkened room. Nevertheless, once he entered the kitchen he relaxed. There was a fire raging in the large fireplace and different aromas assailed his nostrils, causing his empty belly to rumble.

"Hungry?" Mano pointed to the hearth and told Vin to sit. Understanding the order, the young man did as he was told, enjoying the warmth emanating from the burning logs.

Mano knew that he had to act quickly. Once Calderone sobered up he’d be searching for the slave. Spooning a small portion of stew into the dish he passed it to the boy. Vin’s sparkling blue eyes widened at the sight of food. He was never fed at night. While he lapped at the dish voraciously the elderly Mexican packed a few scraps of meat and bread into a battered leather pouch and filled a canteen with fresh water. He wished he could rid the young man of his collar and chain, but the key to the padlock was in Calderone’s possession and there wasn’t enough time for Mano to try and free the boy from them.

Noticing that Vin was dozing in front of the fire, Mano shook him awake, frightening the young man.

"Ssssh …. No noise." He placed one of his wife’s old shawls around Vin’s shoulders. The boy would have to take his chance in the wilderness. Mano doubted he’d survive, but at least he would die a free man. He slung the pouch and canteen over Vin’s head and placed the chain in the young man’s hand. Vin looked at him in confusion and passed the leash back to him.

"No, you are free now." Returning the chain back to him, Mano led Vin out of the house and over to the small wooden gate in the back yard. Behind the house was a range of hills. Vin, if he could remember, would be able to use his natural instincts to disappear in them and be lost to Calderone forever.

At the gate, Mano took hold of Vin’s arms and said "Vamanos!" He didn’t get the reaction he expected. Vin backed into the yard. His master would be angry; there would be more punishment.

"N ..no .."

"Si!" Hating himself, Mano took off his belt and lashed Vin across the rump with it. "Go! Vamanos!" Raising the belt, he lashed Vin again, forcing the young man through the gate.

Vin began to run, his unsteady legs hardly able to stand upright. Mano sighed loudly; a great weight had been lifted from his heart. He closed the gate and bolted it, then he returned to the kitchen to clear up any evidence of Vin being there. With luck, the boy would be miles away before Calderone found him missing.

Aware that it would be safer to ride into Purgatorio during daylight, Chris decided he’d make camp a few miles north of the notorious town. Although he was tired, he knew it was unsafe to let his guard down so close to the nest of outlaws that lived in and around Purgatorio. He was beginning to wonder what had possessed him to come here alone. If Vin were the American prisoner there, Chris would need help to free him. But since the disappearance of the tracker, Larabee’s thinking hadn’t been particularly straight. Somehow, Vin Tanner had become necessary to him. When it had happened, Chris wasn’t sure; didn’t care, but without Vin’s quiet presence, Larabee was a shadow of himself. He wanted the sun to return to his life.

Vin sat atop a pile of rocks overlooking Purgatorio. He still couldn’t fathom out what had just happened, but he did know his master would be searching for him. Unable to make any decision, Vin didn’t know whether to return to the house or run. Either option would end in a beating.

Wrapping the shawl around him, he sank deeper into his misery. What was he supposed to do?

He wasn’t sure if the voice he heard was real or not, but someone out in the wilderness was calling to him. And a memory returned. A man, tall, black clad, ‘Where are you, pard?’ he was asking.

"Cowboy?" Vin hadn’t realised he’d spoken, but he was on his feet, walking. Not back to the hacienda, but into the hills and towards the voice.


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