by The Buffalo Gals


The tracker’s eyes widened when he saw the beautiful blonde woman and as she walked towards him. He backed away on his haunches; to look at any young female meant punishment; he’d learnt that the hard way. But this woman, she looked like an angel and her voice….

"Vin, we’ve been so worried about you." Mary stopped her movement towards the young man, uncomfortably aware of his fear. She’d spoken to JD earlier in the morning and he’d told her of Chris’ reappearance with a very changed Vin. But the boy’s warning hadn’t prepared her for this. Vin’s attire was that of a wild Indian and his hair a long tangled mess. It was the confused fear on Vin’s face that distressed her most; that and the collar and chain. Taking another step forward, pleased that Vin had held his ground this time, she said softly, "Vin, don’t you know me or Billy?" Her hand reached down and she stroked the top of her son’s head, "I’m Mary, your friend. " Glancing down at the child, she asked him to go and find Chris or Nathan.


"Now Billy, something is wrong with Vin. He needs our help."

The boy hurried off in search of assistance. He liked Vin, almost as much as Chris.

The blonde repeated her name, hoping it would instil some form of recognition in her friend.

Vin looked at her in awe. The colour of her hair, the gentle blue eyes and soothing voice. So different from the females in Purgatorio. Listening to her name, he imitated what she said, "Mar …ee.." he whispered.

"That’s right, I’m Mary. I help you with your reading and writing. I’m your friend." Just about to move in closer, a firm hand stopped her.

"Don’t go any nearer, you’ll scare him," Chris Larabee told her.

"Chris!" Mary sighed with relief, Vin forgotten for the moment, "Chris, where have you been?"

"A long story Mary and I don’t have time to explain. I need to get Vin back to the jail."

"JD told me you were keeping him there. What’s wrong with him Chris? He’s like a child."

"Been used as a slave, treated worse than an animal." His words were sharp, his temper slipping as he watched the tracker’s posture change. Vin was preparing for flight once more.

Mary put a hand to her mouth to stop a sob from escaping. How could anyone hurt the mild mannered young tracker in such a way? Recovering her crumbling composure, she whispered, "How may I help?"

"Just back away, take Billy with you." Chris could see his suggestion didn’t sit well with the feisty blonde but he was desperate now. Trying to calm his tone he urged her,

"Mary, Vin’s scared, which could make him dangerous. That’s why I’m keepin’ him locked up inside the jail. Please, do as I ask."

"Very well," She turned and gathered her son to her skirts, "If I can do anything to help, let me know," she said sadly to Larabee before walking Billy back towards the street. Chris had already stopped listening.

Knowing that the other men were circling around the hotel an alley, Chris moved forward, trying to keep a non-threatening stance. Vin watched warily, his body once more trembling. Was he going to be punished for running away? Hearing a noise behind him, Vin turned his head sharply. Two men were walking towards him. One of them had a bruised face. Vin could vaguely remember him from the previous evening. The other man was tall; a quiet man with a gentle voice.

"Vin, we ain’t here to hurt ya son," Josiah said soothingly, seeing a glimpse of recognition in the tracker’s startling blue eyes, "This old preacher man just wants to make ya safe."

Returning his gaze to the man in black, Vin spied three other men warily circling around him, one of whom he instantly recognised.

"No!" he screamed, avoiding the man with the moustache he hurtled towards the youngest of the three, the weakest one.

JD saw Vin running towards him and heard Chris yelling.

"Don’t let him get past you, JD!"

The youngster had no intention of doing so. As soon as Vin was in range, JD hurled himself at him, tackling the tracker to the ground. They rolled over and over, covering themselves in dust and dirt. Vin was hoping to escape before the others reached him, but it wasn’t to be. Three sets of hands pulled him away from the youngster. Vin thrashed against their grip but his efforts were futile.

"Steady Vin, no one is goin’ to hurt you!" Chris promised as he grappled with his friend, his tone fraught. Vin hit out in the direction of the sharp voice, kicking Chris soundly in the stomach. The gunslinger cannoned backwards into Nathan who grabbed his shoulders and stopped him from falling. Chris dragged air into his stunned lungs, quickly gathering himself, but not before more damage was done. It seemed every time Vin saw Buck he would struggle all the harder. The men around him were shouting and pulling at him and Vin fought with all that he had left.

"You’re gonna hurt y’self, son," Josiah opined, just before a flying fist connected with his eye.

Despite the situation, Nathan had to chuckle; were they all going to end up with black eyes?

Finally, an exhausted Vin was overpowered and locked inside Josiah’s strong embrace. Giving in to the inevitable, the young tracker stilled, tensing himself, ready for the beating he expected. When nothing happened, he glanced up at the preacher, wondering what other form of punishment he could expect; instead he saw a benign, smiling face.

"Got a good right hook there son," Josiah said without a trace of anger, " Ever thought about becoming a prizefighter?!"

Vin’s instincts told him that this man wouldn’t hurt, that he would protect. He felt safe, even when the man with the loud voice and moustache came into view.

Chris’s relief was tempered by his anger. They’d managed to apprehend their friend without any major injuries but Chris berated himself for his actions that had lead to Vin’s escape. Bent almost double and holding his stomach Chris looked over at Vin and Josiah. Vin seemed content in the priest’s company. It would make life a great deal easier for the gunslinger, having someone who Vin trusted to help him. Chris took a deep, steadying breath and straightened albeit stiffly.

"Think you can manoeuvre him back to the jail, Josiah?"

"Certainly brother, but it do seem a shame, having to put the poor boy behind bars when he ain’t done nothin’ wrong."

Hot rage swept through Chris’s veins and he hit out,

"What the hell would you have me do?" he snapped, his fists balling by his sides.

Josiah turned Vin in his arms and shielded him from the gunslinger’s anger, his eyes filled with disapproval. Chris blanched, he didn’t need to hear Ezra, Nathan and Buck telling him to ‘back off’, he knew he was in the wrong. He shrugged in defeat and told the preacher dully,

" Ain’t nothin’ else I can do, not until I know he won’t run off again." Turning towards the rest of the seven, Chris thanked them, especially JD, who was dusting off his clothes. " JD, I’d like you to keep watch outside the jail today. No one comes in unless it’s serious."

"Sure Chris."

"Nathan, Ezra, think you can rustle up a bath and hot water? Think it’s time we got Vin looking less like a savage and more like a tracker."

The two men nodded, walking over to the back door of the hotel; maybe they’d be able to come with the necessaries from there.

"What about me Chris?" Buck asked, unhappy about the reaction he caused in Vin every time he went near him.

"Buck you’re in charge of peace keepin’. Until I find out why Vin’s afraid of you, I can’t let you near him." Larabee could see that his words stung and hated himself for it, but Vin came first and Buck would understand.

His shoulders drooping, Buck shuffled away despondently.

Chris turned back to Josiah, noticing the way Vin clung to the preacher’s jacket. He took off his own coat and placed it around Vin’s trembling shoulders, wrapping his arms protectively around the younger man.

"Come on Vin, let’s get ya back where it’s safe." He looked for a reaction, any reaction. When it came it stung the gunslinger to the core. Vin gathered his chain up shaky fingers and offered it to Chris, placing it into his open palm. Chris just stared at his friend until Vin felt obliged to explain in a timid, faltering voice,

"Master… I… Follow…" Blue eyes gazed up at him, filled with trepidation.

Chris was about to refuse him but Josiah’s grip on his arm silenced him.

"Come Vin," Josiah said to the tracker, his eyes on Chris, "Chris will lead and we will follow together."

Vin leant into the preacher’s embrace and once Chris had gathered himself enough to move followed in his wake with his eyes firmly fixed to the floor.

Chris did not relax his hold on the chain until they were back inside the cell. There he helped Josiah to place Vin on the bunk and settle down with the tracker in his arms. Josiah cradled his charge gently, stroking the matted hair as Chris moved away to pace the confines of the cell.

Vin trembled weakly in Josiah’s embrace and the preacher found himself murmuring reassurances,

"Hush now. No-one here’s gonna hurt ya son," he said over the chaos in the other cell.

Buckets of hot water were arriving in haste and being emptied into a large tub. Though the three men worked as quickly and as quietly as they could they couldn’t avoid Chris’ wrath. The gunslinger flung open the cell door and marched into the adjacent cell, hissing at poor Nathan,

"I want that collar off now!" He pulled the bucket from the healer’s hands, "Go get the blacksmith’s tools."

Nathan held up a hand to steady the gunslinger,

"Now hold on," he said reasonably, "Don’t ya think that might be a mite harsh?"

"Just do it!" Chris snapped, backing off slightly as he heard Vin gasp. JD, who had entered with full buckets stopped and stared at the two men. Nathan frowned, unimpressed by Chris’s temper he lectured the gunslinger,

"Ain’t no good in us all yellin’, won’t help Vin none," he added in a gentler tone as Chris flinched at the mention of his injured friend, "Why don’t ya ask Ezra to take a look at the locks, he’s good with his hands?"

. Chris nodded and said in a tight voice, "All right. Where is he?"

"Fetchin’ water," JD offered, dropping his buckets and dashing out as Chris hissed,

"Go get him kid!"

Soon Ezra appeared around the jailhouse door, already shedding his jacket. He nodded gravely to Chris and with a glance at Vin’s trembling form he unfastened the derringer, placing it and his jacket on the desk. Acutely aware of the leader’s anger Ezra quickly rolled up his sleeves and reached again for the jacket, his lock picking tools were carefully concealed behind the lapel. Nathan joined him, quietly explaining how the gambler should approach their hurting friend.

Chris paced the cell, his temper souring with each step. Raking his hand through his damp hair, he glared hard at the gambler, cursing himself for entertaining Nathan’s idea. He watched Ezra’s careful preparations and had to stop himself from going over and dragging the smaller man into the cell. Behind him, Chris could hear Josiah gently assuring Vin, that no one would hurt him, that he would soon be free of the bonds. Vin was moaning softly, the sound twisting Chris’s gut.

Ezra moved to the doorway of the cell, his attention on the tracker. He wasn’t prepared for the cruel grip on his wrist. Breath hissing through his teeth he stepped back but Chris didn’t break his hold on him. The gunslinger merely twisted the limb until Ezra had to step forward once more to relieve the pressure.

"Unhand me sir!" Ezra growled in a low voice.

"You hurt him and I’ll break it," Chris snarled back at him, his voice equally as low.

The two men glared hard at each other until Chris finally let him go, his eyes never leaving the gambler’s. Ezra flexed the stressed wrist and drew away, his cheeks flushed with temper. He realised he wasn’t being asked to remove the restraints, he was being ordered too and he didn’t like it. His hurt eyes fixed Josiah’s and Ezra’s anger evaporated. He was doing this for Vin, his friend. Chris had no right to think he would need to be threatened so, but that was a matter he would address at another time. He knelt by Vin’s side and looked at the preacher for guidance.

Josiah had seen and heard the exchange in the doorway. He glanced up at the gunslinger who had moved away to the front of the jailhouse to stare sightlessly through the window. At least he was giving Ezra room to work. Looking down at the slight form in his arms he brushed the tangled mane from Vin’s forehead and called down to him,

"Look at me Vin." He waited patiently as Vin wiped the tears from his dirty face and looked up, flinching slightly as Ezra reached over to touch his arm.

"Vin," Josiah soothed, smiling sadly into alarm filled eyes. "This here’s Ezra, he’s goin’ to try and get that there collar off, make ya more comfortable."

Vin glanced over his shoulder at the gambler, shrinking against Josiah’s shoulder as Ezra tried to touch the steel collar. Slowly Ezra moved Vin’s hair away from the band and with a light grip turned the restraint until the locks were visible. At first, Vin was too afraid to move but as Ezra leaned closer to study the mechanism the tracker leaped into Josiah’s arms, burying his face against the big man’s neck.

"Noo…," he cried, trying to squirm as far away from Ezra as possible.

Ezra recoiled in horror, trying to increase the space between himself and Vin as quickly as possible so that the tracker would calm. As he moved away, Chris appeared and took his place by Vin’s side, calling softly to the distressed man, his words joining with Josiah’s soft chant.

"Vin. Hey pard, it’s aright. Look at me." Chris touched Vin’s chin, "Come on Vin, look at me." He smiled with relief as Vin raised his head from Josiah’s neck and gazed at the gunslinger through tear filled eyes.

"We ain’t tryin’ t’hurt you pard. I won’t let anyone hurt you." He reached out to stroke Vin’s cheek, his fingers soothing the troubled man. "Just want t’help." He gazed into Vin’s eyes as the tracker digested this information, waiting quietly for the younger man to make the first move.

Ezra straightened and looking down at the scene before him glanced at his hands, they were shaking. He cursed himself inwardly for the weakness. It wasn’t the volatile Chris Larabee that was causing the tremors, it was a reaction to the tracker’s plight. He jumped as Nathan placed a sympathetic hand on his shoulder, looking up at the healer with a less than friendly glint in his eyes.

"Give Chris a minute, then we’ll try again," Nathan said calmly but firmly, silently willing the gambler to stay with the task.

Ezra nodded curtly, his attention fixed on the three men.

Josiah continued to rub Vin’s back as he digested Chris’s gentle words. Eventually Vin shifted in Josiah’s arms and faced the gunslinger, lowering his head as he took the chain fixed to his neck in his hands. He offered the end of the chain to Chris who frowned at the gift. Vin reached forward, wrapping trembling fingers around the gunslinger’s hand he drew it towards him until he could place the end of the chain in Chris’s palm.

"You… Master… Now," he whispered, his eyes pleading for understanding.

"No Vin," Chris sighed sadly, "You are free…" He tried to release the chain but Vin clamped his hand shut by wrapping it in both of his own.

"You… Master…"His blue eyes cut into Chris’s soul, "I… Follow…" His mouth opened as he fought with his sluggish mind and his urgent need to make the black clad man understand.

"Wait a minute!" Josiah placed his own hand over Vin’s as Chris tried to extricate himself.

Both men stared at him.

"Vin needs you to be master, and that means keepin’ the collar." He nodded to Vin who just stared at him, his eyes searching the preacher’s face.

"What are you sayin’?" Chris growled impatiently.

Josiah smiled, his eyes gentle as he watched the tracker watching him. Slowly he raised his head and removed the cross he wore on a leather thong. Unfastening the thong he removed the emblem and carefully slipped the leather around Vin’s neck, tying it loosely at one end. The other end he offered to Vin who moved a hand away from Chris’ to take the offering.

"New Master, new collar," Josiah smiled, adding as Chris glared at him, "It will have to do for the time bein’." He watched as Vin uncurled Chris’s fingers and slipped the heavy chain free. A lump formed in his throat when Vin straightened and placed the leather in the gunslinger’s hand.

"Master," he said, his voice filled with relief.

Josiah stole a look at Chris. He sat facing his friend, gripping the offered leather in one hand as he wiped the tears from Vin’s cheeks with the back of his fingers. His eyes were dark with anguish as he tried to comfort his broken friend. Neither man spoke but Josiah could see they were ‘talking’ through the unspoken connection they’d always shared. The preacher took a deep breath, until then he hadn’t realised he’d been holding it. He broke the silence that had surrounded the group,

"Are you ready to try again Vin?" He noticed Chris flinch as he broke free of the tracker’s spell.

Vin just gazed at Josiah, unable to formulate a single thought.

Chris got slowly to his haunches,

"He’s tired," he said in a weary voice, "Let’s get this finished." He turned to look over his shoulder at the gambler, "Ezra?" The invitation was as close to an apology as Ezra could expect.

Ezra stepped forward and got to his knees,

"Hold still Vin, Ah won’t touch you more than Ah have to." He reached out and gently moved Vin’s dirty hair away from the locking mechanism and slipped a thin blade into the barrel.

Vin leant against Josiah’s shoulder, sighing softly as the tension ran out of him. He fingered the loose end of the leather and closed his eyes. His new master would take care of him; no one would hurt him while the man was here. He listened to the scrapes and clicks as the southerner worked the reluctant lock, jumping as the collar sprung free. Opening his eyes, he saw that the gambler had moved away and he was gazing up into the concerned eyes of his master.

Chris very gently eased the opened collar away from Vin’s neck, his temper rising as he saw the bruises and sores hidden by it. Sitting up he threw the cursed article as far as he could; it sailed through the open door, the end of the chain clanging loudly against the steel bars of the cell. Chris glared after it then turned back to his friend as Ezra and Nathan crept away from their side. Chris reached down and gently took Vin’s wrists in his own,

"Come on pard," he said gently, helping the younger man to his feet. He wrapped a blanket around Vin’s shoulders and drew him to the bunk. Sitting down he gathered Vin against him and cradled him against his chest,

"Settle down now," Chris soothed, rocking his charge gently as he stroked the tangled mane at the crown of Vin’s head. "Gonna take a bath soon, then you’re gonna rest," he hushed Vin as the tracker started to moan softly against his neck, "Easy pard, ain’t no-one gonna hurt ya." His breath fanned the back of Vin’s neck, drifting across the dark bruises and damaged nerves, reminding Vin of the new collar he wore for this man. The tracker shivered, and hunkered down against his protector. He knew he was safe and he desperately wanted to sleep but the shock from his ordeal rose to seize his weakened body and he couldn’t rest, it was all he could do to keep from screaming. Through it all Chris held him, whispered reassurances to him and steadied him. Vin wrapped his arms around the gunslinger’s neck and held on as if his life depended on it.

It took a long time for Chris to calm the trembling bundle in his arms enough to contemplate bathing him. He continued to rock the slight form in his arms, whispering reassurances to him. Vin jumped at every sound, gasping audibly if words were exchanged. Chris reached up to stroke the back of the tracker’s head, willing him to settle, damning himself for not foreseeing Vin’s fears. He listened to the two men whispering in the next cell and knew by the attack of shivers that Vin listened too, and understood.

"Water’s right now," Nathan whispered to the preacher, "He needs to soak for twenty minutes in the herbs, dry him then put this tincture on the worst of his wounds."

"Will do Doc," Josiah smiled, following Nathan to the outer cell door that the healer locked.

"Y’sure you all right in there?" Nathan asked, his eyes fixing the two men at the back of the cell.

"Don’t worry about us," Josiah said, "Just do one thing for me."


"Can ya make sure the stove is loaded up."

Nathan nodded and after hanging the keys crossed to the small black stove placed beside the cell bars. He topped up the logs then took his leave, casting one last look back at the two men huddled on the cot bed.

Chris waited until Josiah had gone back into the cell before turning his attention back to the tracker.

"Vin?" he whispered, gently tucking wayward locks of golden hair behind the tracker’s ear.

Vin moved slightly so that he could look up at the gunslinger, his eyes filled with fear.

Chris sighed and looked away a moment, his heart compressing at the sight of his broken friend. Watched by the preacher he gathered himself together and smiled down at the younger man,

"Gonna give you a bath now. Get you cleaned up and see where you’re hurtin’," he smoothed Vin’s troubled brow before holding out his hands to the tracker, "Comin?"

Vin studied Chris’s steady gaze before lowering his eyes to his hands. Slowly he placed his own hands palm down into the gunslinger’s. Chris closed his fingers around Vin’s, smiling sadly at the younger man.

"Come on then." He stood slowly so as not to alarm Vin then helped him to his feet. Vin stepped up to Chris’s side and laid his cheek against the man’s chest, hiding his face from view. Chris wrapped an arm around him and together they walked into the adjacent cell.

Chris stopped by the tub and looked over to Josiah and the preacher walked across and stood on the opposite side of the bath.

"Vin, Josiah and I will help you to bathe, I don’t want you to be afraid of him, he won’t hurt you." He stroked the side of Vin’s face, cupping his chin so that he couldn’t hide any more.

Vin clung to the gunslinger but he couldn’t look away from the warmth in Chris’s green eyes. No-one had looked at him like that before, yet somehow the expression seemed familiar. He searched his memory for a clue; a key to the past but only one word came back to him. He uttered it, caught in the green-eyed gaze like a moth to a flame,


Chris held still as Vin reached up to touch his face, trembling fingers tracing his eyebrows, his cheekbones and the so called laughter lines beside his eyes. He waited patiently until the tracker had finished then he spoke again.

"You ready for this?" he asked, turning towards the bath and taking Vin with him, making sure he saw the preacher before stepping into the water. The slender man froze in his arms; his eyes fixed on the impostor.

"Easy," Chris soothed, rubbing warmth and comfort into Vin’s arms, "I told you, Josiah won’t hurt, he wants to help you." He felt Vin press against him as Josiah held out a hand. The preacher waited patiently until Vin reached out and placed his hand in Josiah’s paw and let the big man draw him towards the tub.

"Watch yer step son," Josiah said, his tone gentle. Vin hesitated for a moment then placed a toe in the warm water. He was soon standing in the tub, holding on to Josiah’s hand with both of his own. Chris stepped up behind him and stroked his fingers down the tracker’s upper arm.

"Good," he breathed, letting his hands stroke Vin’s sides, down over his prominent ribs to the waist of his breech. "Let’s get you out of this then you can sit down," he said, feeling more than a little awkward as he loosened the waist of the garment. Vin gasped as the leather worked free and fell away but although he squeezed Josiah’s hand tightly he didn’t let go or flee. Chris placed the discarded garment on the floor and turned back to Vin, taking hold of his waist.

"Sit down, slowly does it." Both men helped Vin to sit in the soothing water, Chris carefully cradling his head to make sure he didn’t hit it on the high back. Josiah placed a folded towel behind his friend’s head and made him comfortable then while Chris sorted through the soaps and herbs he began to wash the tracker’s upper body. As the preacher worked, Vin reached out and took the small amulet Josiah wore into his hands, feeling the treasures inside through the thin leather. Josiah sat back and watched Vin studying the small parcel.

"Like it?" the preacher asked softly.

Vin startled, dropped the pouch and shrank back against the towels.

"Don’t be afraid son." Josiah smiled sadly, "You are home now."

"Home," Vin repeated with finality, the word comfortable on his tongue. He smiled softly at Josiah and relaxed again, trusting the man not to hurt him.

Chris returned to sit by the tub, dipped a fresh bar of soap into the tub and began lathering a washcloth. Vin placed his fingers over Chris’ and raised their hands to his nose, sniffing the delicate aroma of sandalwood,

"Home," he said, his blue eyes fixing the gunslinger. He leaned forward to sniff the collar of Chris’ shirt, his breath fanning the gunslinger’s throat, "Cow-boy." He looked back at Josiah, "Home, cow-boy."

"I think he’s trying to say that you smell of home," Josiah chuckled at the nonplussed look the gunslinger gave him. In the tub Vin smiled and flicked water up with his fingertips, wetting Chris’s shirt, "Home," he said simply, the word almost a sigh. He closed his eyes and let himself be held.

Chris looked over at Josiah, who was busy washing Vin’s legs and feet,

"You said the right thing," he told the man, his hands still working over Vin’s scalp, now rinsing his hair with fresh water.

"Just lucky I guess." Josiah smiled softly, watching Vin enjoying the massage, "Never thought Vin was the settlin’ kind."

Chris rinsed the last of the suds away and looking into Vin’s eyes stroked his damp hair away from his face,

"He ain’t," he answered Vin’s gentle smile; "His home is wherever we are," he whispered, his fingers still caressing the tracker’s face.

Josiah smiled to himself, knowing that by his words the gunslinger revealed more of himself than he realised. He knew of the bond that bound the seven men because he felt it too.

Vin listened to their exchange; his eyes fixed on Chris’s. He liked the tone of their voices, so unlike the sounds he was used to hearing. He liked the scent of the man before him, liked sharing that scent with him. He felt like he belonged here.

"Home," he whispered, blinking slowly as Chris traced the lines on his brow with tender fingertips.

"Time to get you out of the bath pard," Chris said gently, unable to tear himself away from the tracker.

Josiah got stiffly to his feet and collected the warming towels, passing one to the gunslinger.

Chris stood and held out a hand to the man watching him,

"Let’s get you dried up," Chris told him, his voice husky as he remembered doing this with his own child. Vin took the offered hand and stood, stepping out of the tub and into Josiah’s waiting towel. He stood still as the two men gently dried him, patting dry the worst of his wounds. Once Chris was satisfied Vin was dry, he wrapped the towel around his shoulders to collect the moisture from his hair then took the cream Nathan had left for him. Together he and Josiah dressed the various cuts and grazes on Vin’s body as the tracker stood naked and unashamed before them, his trusting eyes always fixed on Chris. Anger stirred in the gunslinger as he worked over Vin’s body, each wound telling a story of the torture the tracker had suffered. He swallowed down the rage and took a deep breath, he didn’t want to frighten his friend once more. Josiah had gathered a thick blanket and he wrapped this around Vin’s shoulders once Chris had moved to rub the tincture into the tracker’s legs.

Vin pulled the warm blanket around him. Nestling in its folds, he closed his eyes as the last of the tension ran out of him. He stumbled only to be steadied by Chris’s hands on his hips. He opened his eyes and focused on Chris’s face,

"Come on." Chris ushered him to the other cell, "Let’s get your hair brushed out then you can sleep." He sat Vin on a wooden chair that sat as close to the stove as the bars would allow then turned to collect his tools. Vin didn’t like the hard wooden seat; he glanced at Chris’s back and decided this master would not punish him for moving. The chair had been placed on a thick woven rug to prevent Vin’s feet from becoming chilled. He slipped from the chair onto it’s surface and pulling the blanket closer he sat cross legged in front of the bars. He listened to the two other men talking quietly behind him and sighed, he wanted them to come back to him, and he missed their gentle attention.

Leaving Josiah to tidy up the bath things Chris gathered up brush and comb and padded across the cell to where Vin sat warming by the stove. He stopped a moment and watched the tracker. Vin was wrapped in the warm blanket that didn’t quite cover his shoulders, his hair a mass of tangled ringlets around his face. The firelight caught Vin’s eyes, reminding Chris of the man that dwelled in the shell before him.

Chris sat down slowly on the chair, careful not to startle his friend. Vin didn’t stir, his attention caught by the glowing embers.

"Vin?" the gunslinger called softly, waiting until Vin looked up before continuing. His heart leapt at the recognition and trust in the blue eyes. He reached out to run his fingers through the wet ringlets that clung to Vin’s neck.

"Gonna brush out your hair; understand?"

Vin smiled, settling himself against Chris’s legs before turning his gaze back to the fire. Chris slipped his fingers through the ringlets closest to his hands, teasing the hair loose before running the brush through. He became consumed in his task, happy to share this quiet moment with his friend. Vin dipped his head forward allowing Chris access to the thick mane at his neck and Chris drew the brush from Vin’s temples to the nape of his neck. That was when he saw the marks. Tiny round burns ringed the tender backs of Vin’s ears, angry like accusations of abandonment.

"No," Chris moaned softly, running his hand palm down over Vin’s ear to hide the terrifying truth. "Oh Vin…" He whispered, anguish lacing each word.

Vin gently pulled away and turned to face the gunslinger, looking up with sorrowful eyes, afraid he was the cause of Chris’s pain. Chris ran his fingers down each side of the tracker’s face, finishing the caress by stroking the hair at Vin’s temples.

"What have they done to you Vin?" he asked in a voice thick with emotion. Vin’s eyes rounded, he opened his mouth to answer but the words wouldn’t come. Seeing the hurt on the smaller man’s face Chris gathered him into his arms and hugged him, rubbing his cheek against the tracker’s forehead.

"So much to bear pard, so much," he lamented, rocking Vin in his arms as he fought with his own grief. Vin’s arms snaked around Chris’s neck and he hugged the gunslinger back, somehow knowing how to comfort him.

Josiah’s hand touched Chris’s head, lingering over the blond hair as he watched the two men,

"What’s wrong?" he asked, his eyes on the tracker.

Chris sat back and gathered the gaping ends of the blanket together around Vin’s chest, smiling sadly at the smaller man, unable to stop himself from stroking the soft golden hair.

"There’s burns behind his ears Josiah. They didn’t just enslave him, they tortured him." He continued to stroke Vin’s soft hair as the tracker laid his cheek against Chris’s thigh. "Who would do this to him?" he asked, his tone hardening, "Who the hell would do this to him!" he spat, making Vin gasp and pull away.

"Easy Chris, don’t go scaring him again," Josiah soothed, his fingers closing around the gunslinger’s shoulders, "There’s time for the questions, but right now we have to think of Vin."

Chris held his hands out to the tracker. Vin watched him warily, panting softly as he sat on his haunches, ready for flight.

"I’m sorry pard, didn’t mean to scare you," Chris whispered, "Come here." He patted his thigh and was rewarded by Vin’s reappearance at his feet. Humbled, Chris stroked Vin’s hair, his hands moving down to his shoulders. Vin slipped his hands around Chris’s waist and squeezed close to his side so he could lay his cheek against the gunslinger’s heart. Chris pulled him closer, his hands running over his back.

"Won’t let them hurt you again Vin, I promise," he whispered, his face close to the tracker’s.

"Home," Vin said simply, the word almost a sigh. He closed his eyes and let himself be held.

Josiah watched them for a moment then moved away. His eyes were filled with unshed tears. They were two of the quietest men he’d ever known yet here they demonstrated a depth of feeling Josiah had rarely witnessed in any man. Keeping his emotions to himself, he turned back the small cot bed ready to receive their troubled friend.


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