by Jeanne

Josiah sat outside the low fires’ circle listening. He was on ‘guard’. While he and Nathan felt it was unnecessary, Chris had been adamant.

"You gotta watch Josiah they said they’d be back." Chris had said more then once with poorly disguised anxiety.

"We’ll watch, Chris. No one will sneak up on us."

Even with that reassurance, neither Chris nor Vin slept well. Waking as often as Nathan’s tea allowed, they would look around making sure all was safe and then drift off again.

Josiah didn’t mind these late night vigils. It gave him time to contemplate and to pray.

He thought tonight about Vin. The tracker seemed to be troubled. He would hardly eat or drink, although Nathan insisted that his throat was better. The first thing he’d do when he woke was check on Chris. Then he’d turn away, close his eyes, and sleep some more.

What’s eating on you, Vin? You took care of Chris as best you could. Josiah glanced over at the restless form of the tracker. That’s it isn’t it? You don’t think you did enough. You feel you failed. Lord, how do I show that fine man he didn’t fail anybody?

Josiah stood groaning inwardly at the cracking of his knees and back . Getting old, Lord. My bones pop and crack too much anymore. He walked to the outside and watched the bright full moon reflecting off the expanse of white sand. Lord, You sure did pretty work here. Turning back, he watched the sleepers. Only Vin moved, restless in his dreams.

Josiah went over to him and sat down again close by Vin. Vin felt the movement and opened his eyes. Josiah watched him glance at the sleeping Chris and this time he caught the guilty look in the blue eyes.

Lord, a little help here please. "Vin, we need to talk. No, don’t turn away. You listen to me, Vin Tanner. You are not some super man. You are just a man and you did everything you could to take care of Chris and yourself."

Vin shook his head.

Josiah tried again. "Nathan asked about your feet. Do you remember what happened to them?"

Vin held his thumb and first finger a little apart.

"A little, umm? Shall I tell you? The men who had you tied you down and beat you. But then they tied you again with your feet up. You couldn’t move. No matter how you struggled you couldn’t move. Then they started beating the bottoms of your feet. You couldn’t move, you couldn’t cuss and finally, you couldn’t scream.

You were totally absolutely helpless. You couldn’t help yourself, you couldn’t help Chris."

Josiah watched the anger and frustration build in Vin’s eyes, his fist knotting against the blanket.

"You felt helpless. But you weren’t, not really. When the wagon toppled, you could have just laid there. But you didn’t. You got free, you got Chris free and you practically carried him here. You took care of him, doctored him the best you could. You had nothing, Vin, yet you saved his life and your own. So pack that guilt away, there’s no need for it. You did the best you could. Now your job is to get better and you can’t do that if you don’t eat. Buck and Ezra should be back tomorrow. We need to move and you can’t ride if you’re weak as a kitten. You have to try."

Vin sighed and laid one arm over his eyes trying to shut out Josiah and his voice. Why won’t he hush? Josiah didn’t understand. Vin knew what kind of men these were and yet he’d gotten Chris and himself in the middle of trouble. But Josiah was right he needed to get stronger because he was going to get Jorge and the rest. Vin ground his teeth; he would get them and make them pay.


Chris sat watching Vin sleep. He would occasionally sip at the cup of herbal tea Nathan insisted he drink. He felt so much better, stronger, until he moved or tried to stand. His feet were getting better and he could walk for short distances to take care of business. He looked down at his bandaged hand. Turning it palm up, he slowly wiggled his fingers. The movement brought a tingle of pain. He tried fisting his hand and that hurt. Again he tried, this time only fisting it until it felt tight, then releasing it. He could feel the tender healing flesh protesting the movement.

Vin moved restlessly in his sleep. He had slept a lot the past couple of days and when he was awake they all tried to get him to drink and eat the soft foods Nathan made. Chris didn’t blame Vin for baulking at the mashed beans. They looked awful but didn’t really taste too bad. Of course they would be better with some chili on them but Nathan insisted that bland was the way to go until Vin’s throat completely healed. Vin didn’t care much for the broth soaked bread Nathan kept giving both of them, either. Chris understood that, though after just a few bites, he felt bloated and full also. It was a struggle to eat and drink enough to satisfy the healer.

Vin moved again rolling up into a tight ball his hands fisted and his mouth squeezed into a tight line. Nightmare coming on Chris thought.

He was being held down, there were unseen hands holding him making it impossible for him to move even his head. Looking up, all he saw was the light reflecting off the hunting knife held over him. The tip was red, shiny, bright, ruby red. Vin watched as a drop rolled down to the tip and elongated until it dropped and hit his throat, splattering on his neck causing a burning pain. Then he heard the screaming.

"CHRIS??" He struggled, fought tried to get free but no matter which way he tried to turn and wiggle free he couldn’t. He couldn’t see anything but the knife and the blood. Another drop ran down the tip of the hunting knife and slowly elongated before it detached and fell. Again the pain exploded in his throat. Again the screaming started again. "Oh God please, I gotta help Chris. Chris needs me. God please get them off me."

It was Chris screaming he knew it was and he could do nothing. He couldn’t help Chris and he couldn’t help himself. The harder he struggled, the tighter he was held down. All he could do was look at the flickering light on the knife blade and wait for the next drop to fall. His breathing was coming in harsh gasps as he waited for it to happen again. He couldn’t stand it and as the next drop detached, he screamed

Only there was no sound. His mouth was open, air rushed out but no sound came from him. The only thing he could hear was Chris, Chris screaming for him and then just screaming. Chris’ voice coming out of the darkness, begging him over and over to help him, to make it go away. Then the next drop was coming down the knife blade and as he waited this time, he heard the whimpering, which was worse then the screams. "No more, please, God, No more.

Chris reached over and gently placed his hand on Vin’s trembling shoulder. "Hey Pard, wake up. No bad dreams allowed." He spoke softly; knowing that waking the tracker suddenly could be dangerous. But the dream seemed to be getting worse. He tightened his grip of the trackers’ shoulder, shaking it slightly.

At the touch, Vin jerked awake. He quickly looked around and then up at Chris. His breath coming in gasps as he tried to wipe the dream from his mind. It was a dream; they were fine, the boys were here watching about things. Vin looked at Larabee, he was fine. There was nothing wrong. He tried to slow his breathing and his pounding heart.

"You were having a nightmare. You okay? Thirsty?"

Vin sighed as Chris insistently held out a cup.

"Gotta drink up, Cowboy. It’s good for you."

Vin sighed again, and making an effort not to touch much with his feet he scooted up to where he was sitting up, too. He reached for the cup, and grimacing he began to sip.

Chris watched Vin while pretending to watch the sky. "Buck and Ezra should be back today, maybe tomorrow early. You up to riding?"

Vin nodded.

Chris smirked, "Sure you are." Then on a more serious note, "Think they headed south."

With a hard look, Vin nodded once.

"Yeah me too. You know any towns along the border they could sell the stuff from the wagon in? Someplace they don’t ask questions?"

Again, Vin nodded.

This time Chris looked into Vin’s eyes. "Are you going to be up to this? Nathan is going to want to take us home. If we travel slowly, it’ll give us more time to heal, but we are going after them. Vin, I’m not sure I remember what they looked like."

Vin reached over and squeezed Chris’ arm then tapped his own chest.

"You remember?"

Vin nodded.

Chris swallowed, "Yeah, you would." Chris glanced down at his hand. " You point out the one that did this? You can have Jorge, but I want the others."

Hard green eyes met harder blue ones. Chris felt another squeeze It’s a deal, Pard.


JD sat on top of a large rock watching. It’d been four days and Buck and Ezra were due back any time. He was restless and couldn’t stay in the grotto anymore. Josiah and Nathan took care of Vin and Chris. They at least had something to do. All he was good for was moving the horses to graze and gathering firewood, which was becoming harder and harder. Nothing grew here; the ever moving white sand covered everything and choked the life from anything that dared to sprout.

The kid sat a littler taller, squinting toward the west. Yep, movement. Oh, please let it be Buck and Ezra. JD watched until he could see the big gray that Buck rode, and then jumping down, he ran back to the grotto.

"It’s them. They’re coming."

"You sure it’s them, JD?" Chris asked.

"Yeah Chris, I saw Darlin’ real clear. It’s hard to miss that big gray."

It took another hour for them to arrive.

"Hey Buck, didja have any trouble? Boy I’m glad to see you."

"Yeah, me too, Kid. It was a long ride." Buck handed JD several large packages, and taking several himself, he called over his shoulder. "Ezra, get the rest will ya?"

"Of course, Mr. Wilmington, I’d be delighted to be your pack animal." Nevertheless Ezra grabbed several more packages and carried them in.

Looking around, Ezra smiled when he saw Chris and Vin sitting up. "Mr.’s Larabee and Tanner, how delightful to see you up and about, so to speak."

"Well, Ezra we’re up, don’t know about the about part yet."

"Regardless, Sir, you are in much better health than when Mr. Wilmington and I left. Mr. Jackson, I feel assured that you will find all you requested in these bundles. Some at no small cost, I assure you. Although I’m afraid the footwear may be difficult to fit our friends. They seem to have very large feet in that town."

Nathan was already going through the packs. "That’s okay, Ezra, I’m sure you did your best. Besides, if the moccasins are a little big they can wear an extra pair of socks. It’ll be better that way. You got the herbs I asked for? And the salves?" Pulling out a large, tanned hide, Nathan looked at Ezra. "What the hell is this?"

"It is lamb skin, Mr. Jackson. I believe you will find the wool in its natural state has a healing effect on damaged skin. Shame, Mr. Jackson, I would have thought you knew this."

Nathan rubbed his hand on the soft, curly wool. He could feel the natural lanolin covering his hand. "Thanks, Ezra, I didn’t think of that."

"No problem, Mr. Jackson. I believe you will find the herbs labeled and wrapped in small packages of brown paper. The salve base is in the blue jar. I checked it myself and it’s the finest quality I could find." Ezra walked over to where Vin sat watching, his back against the rock wall.

"These, I believe, will revive your spirits as well as soothe your tender throat." Ezra handed Vin a small paper cone folded over to close the top. Vin, frowning, looked inside. A large grin spread over his face. "You’re quite welcome, Vin."

Vin reached inside and popped one of the small red and white candies into his mouth. He glanced at Nathan but Nathan was too busy to notice. Another of the small peppermints was popped into his mouth and he hid the rest behind him, sure that Nathan would not approve. But the sweet minty candy soothed his throat and his sweet tooth at the same time.

Chris, watching the exchange smiled quietly to himself. Ezra certainly had a talent for knowing exactly what would make their wild tracker act like a small boy. The hard candies were a rare treat and Vin relished them. Right now anything that brought a smile to Vin was well worth the extra trouble. Chris caught Ezra’s eye and mouthed "thank you" to him.

Ezra, somewhat surprised, gave Chris his usual two fingered salute. "My pleasure," he mouthed.


The next morning Nathan was carefully packing his medicines and fitting the moccasins on the two men’s feet. It did take a couple pairs of socks but he felt the more padding the better. Once fed, dressed and ready to go, he tried to get the two stubborn men to listen.

"Now we ain’t traveling far and if you get to aching or tired before we stop sing out. You is still healing and I don’t want you to overdue it. Vin, Josiah is going to help you out to the horses. Chris, Buck will help you, although your feet is in better shape than Vin’s."

Josiah smiled into the worried eyes of the Tracker. "It’s all right Vin," he whispered. Josiah picked Vin up, letting him stand on his own, with Josiah taking most of his weight.

"Are you ready?"

Vin nodded and took a step. There was some pain but the cushion of the socks and the fur- lined moccasins helped. He looked up and nodded again.

Once outside the grotto, Vin looked around. JD had the horses ready. Vin concentrated on walking, watching where he put each foot.

It was the shrill whinny that stopped him and he looked up. Peso was pulling on his lead and breaking free, he trotted over to Vin.

Vin reached out in wonder. Peso?? Peso blew ‘burrr’ and lowered his head pushing into Vin. Vin let go of Josiah and placed his cheek on the gelding, leaning against him. He reached up and scratched behind Peso’s ears.

I missed you, you ornery mule. Are you okay? Vin took a deep breath, relishing Peso’s unique smell, then opening his eyes, he stepped to the side and began running his hands and eyes over the gelding. Peso stood perfectly still, letting Vin do whatever he wanted. Vin saw the healing saddle sores and looked at JD.

"It’s okay Vin. We found Peso and Pony before we found you and Chris. They still had their saddles on. Nathan and me have been doctoring them and they’re much better."

Josiah came closer, "Come on Vin. You’re riding with me."

Vin shook his head.

"Vin, Peso can’t carry a saddle ‘til he’s all healed."

Vin shrugged, took the lead and looped the rope around Peso’s nose in a half hitch. Then he turned, and grabbing a handful of mane, swung himself up, mounting bareback.

Nathan came out in time to see Vin mount. "Get down off that horse. Are you crazy? You’re not ready to ride on your own and that horse ain’t ready to carry you. Vin? Did you hear me?"

Vin just smiled at Nathan and Peso nodded his head up and down in horse. Pressing one heel against Peso’s side, he turned the gelding and rode to the head of the group.

"Leave him be, Nathan. If he wants to ride that mule, let him," Chris called from the opening in the rock.

"But Chris…."

"Leave it, Nathan. Vin knows what he can and can’t do." Chris looked up at Vin. "Don’t you?"

Their eyes locked and then Vin nodded once.

Chris mounted behind Buck, carefully keeping the sling for his right arm and hand tucked in tight. "You doing okay, Stud?"

"I’m fine Buck."

JD rode close to Chris. "Chris while I was looking for places to graze the horses, I found a nice little box canyon. It’s got water and lots of grass."

"Where is it, JD?"

"Riding slow, about four hours south of here."

Nathan raised his head. "South? No we ain’t going south. Four Corners is northwest of here. We’re going home."

Chris looked at Nathan and sighed. " We’re going south. We’ll check out this canyon and if it suits, we’ll stay there a day or two. Until Vin and I are stronger, then .." He stopped and looked at Vin. "Then we’re going south after the bastards that did this. You can come or not, it’s up to you."

Nathan conceded graciously knowing he had no choice. "Well I ain’t letting you two go off by yourselves. You’ll get all sick again and all my work will be wasted."

Buck laughed and gathering the reins of Darlin’, "South, Pard?"

"South." Chris said and Vin nodded.


Ezra watched as Vin’s shoulders slowly slumped as time passed. His left hand tightly wound in Peso’s mane was the only thing giving Vin stability. Ezra kneed Chaucer closer to the cantankerous horse. "Mr. Tanner, perhaps you would consent to riding with me?"

Vin lifted his head and looked sideways at Ezra. I’m fine, Ez.

"Of course you’re fine Mr. Tanner. I was simply expressing my concern for Peso. He has not fully recovered from his ordeal and perhaps a rest from having even your slight weight would be welcome. Chaucer, on the other hand, is fit and strong and would gladly carry the extra burden."

Vin studied Ezra trying to work his way through all the words. He was tired and he ached. But to admit it would be admitting weakness and Vin had been showing way too much of that lately. Peso?

"Yes, Vin, Peso is looking a bit worse for wear. You could slide over into my saddle with little trauma to your feet and give Peso a breather."

Ezra watched as Vin pondered what he’d said and rubbed Peso’s neck. Then he nodded.

"Excellent, Mr. Tanner." Ezra kneed Chaucer closer and lifted himself to behind the saddle, leaving it empty for Vin.

Vin lifted his right leg over to where he was sitting ‘sidesaddle’ and then placing his right foot in the stirrup he lifted his left leg over Chaucer’s neck and settled into the saddle seat. Reaching down to the hand that held the reins he patted it twice.

"You’re very welcome Mr. Tanner. Now please relax, Chaucer has a pleasing gate and is a smooth ride." Vin sighed and began to relax. It wasn’t but ten minutes before he was leaning against Ezra, who smiled to himself. That’s it my friend. Relax, I’ve got your back.

Chris watched the whole exchange from his vantage point behind Buck. He didn’t realize that Buck had watched it too, until Buck spoke. "Ezra sure has a way with him. I don’t think any of us could have convinced him to move but Ez did."

Chris snorted softly, "Vin would do almost anything for that horse and Ezra knows it. It was a good move. He’s not as strong as he thinks he is."

"Neither are you Chris." Buck added softly.

"I’m fine, Buck."

"Sure you are." Buck smiled as they traveled and Chris began to lean more and more on him. It wasn’t long before he could tell Chris was dozing, too.


They arrived at the small box canyon in the afternoon. It was full of budding cottonwoods and fresh spring grass and water. Finding a spot near the water that was sheltered from the wind the men began setting up camp. Nathan spread a blanket out by a fallen cottonwood trunk and they sat Vin and Chris down there to rest. More tired than either wanted to admit, they both dozed until almost dark. By then Nathan had supper nearly done and the ever present tea ready for them. This would make a good place to heal some more.


Buck rolled over and rubbed his nose. DAMN those things stink. Squinting through the firelight he saw a dark figure away from the camp leaning against a cottonwood, the glow of the Mexican cigar glowing in the dark and moved occasionally.

Sighing, Buck sat up, and reaching for the bottle in his saddle bags, he walked over to where Chris stood. He called softly as he approached, "hey Stud. Couldn’t sleep?"


Buck held out the bottle. "Want a little help sleeping?"

Chris shook his head "No."

Buck slid down the tree trunk. "Well, I can use a drink." He opened the bottle and took a good swallow.

Chris slid down beside him. Leaning his head back against the tree, he looked over at their sleeping companions.

Buck looked too. "Vin’s sleeping better tonight."


"But you’re not."

Chris took a deep drag on his cigar. "Nope."

"Sometimes it helps to talk."

Chris sighed, and said, "I would if I could but its all feelings, darkness and feelings nothing to get a handle on. I don’t even remember much when I wake up. I just feel panicked and my hearts racing. And just for a moment, I’m afraid to try to open my eyes. Afraid I can’t…afraid there’s nothing to see."

"You went through a lot, Chris. It’ll take some time to get over it. You and Vin are trying too hard. You’re trying to rush things. You need to take it easy."

Chris stubbed out the cigar and got up. He looked around and then at Buck. "We need to get them, Buck." And he walked away into the dark.


Chris never sat still. He was explosive energy and the way he let it go was to be constantly on the move. Pacing, working his fingers, rubbing his hand. The only time he was still was when Nathan managed to give him a sleeping tea. Even then he only slept in short naps. He would wake with a jerk and then quietly get up and begin to prowl around the campsite, limping slightly on his still tender feet.

Chris rubbed his face and eyes and looking up, he felt Vin watching him. Looking around, he spotted Vin sitting outside the circle of light. He carefully stood and walked over to where Vin was sitting. Chris sank down beside Vin, his back against an old tree trunk. Chris watched as Vin, rubbed and massaged his feet with the lanolin Ezra had brought. "Does that help?"

Vin shrugged and then nodded. He switched feet and Chris watched. "Couldn’t sleep?"

Vin shook his head.

"Me neither."

Chris cleared his throat. Vin glanced at him Please Chris don’t ask.

Finally, "You planning on talking any time soon?"

DAMN Shrug.

"Vin, have you tried?"

Don’t do this, Chris. Shrug.

Without looking at Vin, Chris stood. "Nathan’s been worried. I’ll try to keep him in check. You’ll talk when you’re ready." Then Chris walked away.

Thanks, Cowboy The truth was, Vin had tried alone with Peso but no matter how hard he tried, no sound came out, only air. Everyone had been so careful not to mention that he hadn’t talked. But now Chris had said out loud what the others were thinking. But he couldn’t help it, no sound came out no matter how hard he tried.


Nathan stood back and watched. Chris drew the 45 from the cross holster with his left hand. He wasn’t as fast as with his right but almost. He’d been at it for hours. Drawing and dry firing the gun Buck had bought him.

Chris reached and started to draw again, only this time he stopped and cussing put his thumb in his mouth. His right hand had a callous from the hammer but his left didn’t.

Nathan stepped forward, "all right that’s enough." He grabbed Chris’ hand,, looking at the blister on the thumb. "No more."

Chris tried glaring. Nathan laughed. "That ain’t working today. You gotta give the skin time to toughen up."

"I need you to take the stitches out."

"No, they need to stay in a few days more to be safe."

"Take them out. They pull; it’s a distraction I don’t need. Take them out now."

Nathan hesitated. "I’ll check them. We’ll see about taking them out."

Chris, feeling that was all Nathan would give nodded, "Fine." He started taking off his shirt. And they walked over to where Nathan was keeping his medical supplies.

Nathan unwrapped the bandage from around Chris’ middle. The cut was healing but it would leave a fine scar all the way across his abdomen. In the middle, where the knife had cut the deepest, were eight stitches. Nathan looked at them critically. Glancing up at Chris, he said. "I’m going to take out one and we’ll see. I ain’t promising anything."

"Get them out or I will."

Nathan sighed, and taking his sharpest knife he cut each of the gut stitches and with the tweezers, he jerked them out.

Chris hissed in pain as they came loose, leaving tiny red dots where each had been. Once they were out, Nathan washed them with carbolic and wrapped them with a clean bandage. "There, all done, you happy now?"

Chris glared, "You enjoyed that."

Nathan simply smiled and cleaned the knife and tweezers.


Nathan watched as Vin leaned tiredly against Peso, his face buried in the gelding’s thick mane shoulders slumped. Peso stood still lending his strength to the wounded tracker.

Nathan went over, and forgetting just who it was he was approaching, laid a hand on Vin’s shoulder. "Vin?"

In an instant, Vin spun around and Nathan felt the prick of a knife blade under his chin and raised his hands, palm up. "Easy Vin, it’s just me." He stood perfectly still. This was not the gentle tracker he knew. This was a hardened killer that held the knife to his throat and was on the verge of slitting it.

Vin stood gripping the knife so hard his knuckles were white. Recognition slowly dawned and he lowered the knife to his side. Regret reflected in his eyes and he raised his hand and lightly touched the place the knife point had touched.

Nathan wrapped his large fingers around Vin’s hand. "It’s okay Vin. I startled you. I… you just looked so tired. You wanna go lay down? You want I should help you? Yer feet hurtin’ ya?" Nathan bombarded the Tracker with questions trying to ease his discomfort.

Vin shook his head and pulled his hand free. What was wrong with him? He’d almost stuck a knife in Nathan. His friend. Vin could feel his hands begin to shake, and pulling away, he limped as quickly as he could away from Nathan and the others. He stopped and looked down at the knife. All he could see was it slipping into the chest of Jorge, his blood spurting out. But it was Nathan that he’d held the knife to. What the hell was wrong with him?


Chris sat, watching the others eat breakfast. "Vin and I think it’s time. None of you have to go with us. This is our fight, something we have to do."

Each of the men looked at Chris and then at Vin.

Josiah spoke for them all, "It’s all of our fight, Chris. What affects one of us affects us all. We ride with you."

Chris looked at each man asking silently Are you sure? Each man nodded in turn. Chris cleared his throat, "Vin and I have decided the most likely place they would go is Brazito. It’s a small village just south of Las Cruces, just before you get to El Paso."

"I been there once. There’s nothing there, a couple of saloons, a hotel, livery, and a general store. Oh, and a church." Buck counted off the buildings he remembered.

"That’s right, it’s small, but the general store will take goods in trade and ask no questions. I figure if we ride in separately and look around we’ll be able to tell if they have been there or are still there. Ezra you go in first, alone if you don’t mind, and head for the best saloon."

"Of course, Mr. Larabee."

"Buck, JD, and Nathan you all will go in next. You’ll go check out the general store. Just some cowhands looking for supplies."

They nodded their assent. Except for Vin.

"Josiah, I want you to ride in with Vin. Go to the other saloon. Vin is the one who can spot these men, so we will depend on him to point them out. I’ll follow behind and go to the same place. But you won’t know me."

Vin shook his head no.

"We have to do it this way, Vin. We can’t ride in together; separately, we stand a chance of them not knowing us. You need to be with Josiah, you can’t go in alone." Chris said this with such finality that no one could argue. But Vin still shot him a rebellious glare.

How you gonna order a drink by yourself, Cowboy? Chris shot back at him.

Vin threw down his plate in anger and stalked off. Chris started to get up but Josiah stopped him. "Let me talk to him, Chris."

Josiah watched as Vin angrily broke one stick after another into tiny pieces. By the time the preacher felt it was time to talk there was quite a pile of twigs before Vin’s crossed legs. Josiah signed, and sitting cross legged beside Vin, he waited until the tracker looked up. "You calmer now?"

Vin shrugged.

"Chris is right, you can’t go alone, not this time. But he can. And he’s right about the two of you going in together. If they are there, the two of you together will set off all kinds of alarms. But if you’re with me, we’ll just be a couple of trappers coming in for supplies and fun. They won’t know you until we’re ready. And they won’t know Chris. But we’ll be there to watch his back. Neither one of you are completely healed yet."

Vin glared at Josiah, turning what he’d said over and around. He knew the older man was right but he hated it. Finally blowing ‘brrr’ through his lips, he nodded. Not happy but not thinking of any other way to do it.

"Good. Vin, Chris is worried about you we all are. But Chris feels responsible for you not escaping faster, for you not getting help sooner." Josiah raised his hand to stop Vin’s protest. "Now he hasn’t said anything like that. He wouldn’t. It’s just a feeling I have from watching him and you. It’s the same burden you’re carrying and it’s unjustified, as is his."

Josiah cleared his throat wondering to himself it he should really broach this, and then with a Please, Lord, a little help here. "Vin, Chris thinks it’s his fault you can’t or won’t talk. Did you know that?"

Vin squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head. Then wrapping his arms around himself he hung his head. Then he took his fist and he hit himself in the chest and looked up at Josiah.

"You think it ‘s your fault?"


"Lord, but you two are champion guilt carriers. It’s no more your fault than it is Chris’. The fault lays in the men who did this to you. Vin, Nathan doesn’t think there’s any permanent damage to your throat. You’re eating all right now. But if you want we can find a ‘real’ doctor…"

Vin shook his head vigorously. No .

"Okay, then you gotta trust Nathan and do what he says. And Vin, you don’t have to do this all alone. We are all here for you. I’m here for you, just like you were there for me."

Vin smiled a small smile, and reaching out placed his hand palm out on Josiah’s chest.

"Yeah, what you just said." Josiah smiled back. "Are you ready to go face that ornery

boss of ours?"

Vin nodded and stood. He walked back to the camp with Josiah following. The preacher man noticed but made no comment that Vin was limping more.


Chris rode down the dusty road looking all around with out moving his head. He had his injured hand in the duster pocket. He’d tried a sling, and sticking it in his pants like Buck, but neither felt right. This was the best he’d come up with. He noted subconsciously who and where buildings, troughs, horses, and men were, looking for likely ambush spots, likely hiding places, using all the skills he’d acquired over the years. Coming to the saloon, he dismounted, and with a pat to Pony’s neck, he tied him loosely and headed for the bat wing doors. Stopping as he walked through to let his eyes adjust to the dim interior, he cased the room.

It was midday and the ‘patrons’ were few. At one end of the bar stood Josiah and Vin. If Chris hadn’t seen them before they’d left, he wouldn’t have recognized them. Vin had his hair pulled back and tied at the nape of his neck, his face clean shaven to make him look younger, and was wearing Josiah’s poncho which came down past his knees. His legs were covered with leather, making his moccasins look like Apache boots. Chris knew that hidden inside the right one was the long knife that Vin had been practicing with.

Vin looked up in the mirror behind the bar and for a split second his eyes met Chris’s then he turned back to Josiah.

Chris went to the other end of the bar. "Whiskey."

The bartender set a shot glass down and filled it. Chris threw down some coins and growled, "Leave it."

The bartender shrugged and left the bottle. Chris had the shot glass half way to his mouth when he heard it. The giggle. It took everything he had to continue raising the glass and take a drink. He sat the glass down with care and poured himself another. Picking it up, he slowly turned to survey the room. He heard the laugh again and followed the sound. Behind him, at a table in the back sat a man and a working girl. He watched, listening to the voice. His heart was racing and he again heard the giggling just before his hand was set on fire. It was one of them, it had to be. Casually he turned and caught Vin’s eye.

Vin glanced behind Chris and then back and gave a short nod.

Chris threw back the second shot and felt it land hard in his empty belly. His whole being was tuned to hear what the man was saying. Most of it was to the girl, convincing her to go with him to her room. Finally, a price was settled and they got up to leave. Chris waited a second or two and then followed.

Billy was staggering down the alley, leaning heavily against the girl when he was slammed against the wall. The working girl just stood there. Chris growled to her, "Get out." She turned and ran to her room.

Chris kept his forearm pressed against Billy’s throat and he felt Vin’s presence behind him. "Got your knife?"

In the corner of his eye he saw the shiny blade slide past him and the needle sharp point rest lightly against Billy’s throat. Chris moved his arm but still held the wild eyed Comanchero against the wall. "Remember us?"

Billy looked from one to the other. "No," he croaked.

"Well, we remember you. We want to know a few things, mainly where are the others? "

"What others?" Billy croaked out.

The knife point pressed harder and a drop of blood appeared. Billy looked at the man holding the knife. "Yer…yer dead."

Vin grinned while Chris said, "Not hardly. But you will be soon. Where are the others?"

Billy ran the tip of his tongue over dry lips and he looked from Chris to Vin. "What’s in it for me if I tell you?"

The knife pressed harder as Chris said softly, "We’ll let you live. For now, if you tell us."

Billy’s mind raced, thinking over his options. If he told, they would let him go. He could get the hell out of town while these two were taking care of the others. They wouldn’t bother to chase him down after they’d taken care of them. And if they were killed, no one would know it was him who said anything. "They’re here in town, been seeing working girls on the other side. Should be showing up in the saloons soon. I heard there’s a new gambler in town, Jorge can’t stay away from a good poker game."

Vin glanced at Chris. "Fine, you go tell them we’re looking for them and if they try to run, we’ll know. If you try to run, we’ll know, and we won’t give up."

Vin nodded and stepped back. Billy slid across the wall away from the two men and turned, almost running out into the street. He didn’t even notice Josiah standing behind the others.

Vin seemed to collapse in on himself and Chris reached out and grabbed his arm. "Vin? You alright?"

Vin leaned against the adobe wall, trying to catch his breath and make the dizziness go away. He nodded yes.

Without taking his eyes off the tracker, Chris ordered Josiah, "Follow him Josiah and see where he goes."

Josiah disappeared in the same direction Billy went.


Without moving his head, Vin raised his arm and waved Chris off. I’m fine, just give me a minute. Vin shifted from one foot to the other and then slowly stood straighter. He turned and faced Larabee, and shrugging off his hand, Vin walked toward the street. He made a conscious effort not to limp.

Chris followed, watching the tracker’s stiff gait. His eyes swept the street as Vin went over to a chair in front of the saloon and sat down. The gunslinger walked past the tracker and leaned against the wall on the other side of the batwing doors. His injured hand was placed once again in the pocket of his duster.

Vin leaned the chair back and half closed his eyes. To anyone but the seven, he looked half asleep but his eyes missed nothing that was going on. While he watched everything, he paid particular attention to Josiah, who stood on the far corner. The preacher man was standing where he could see the main street but was looking down a side street, also.

Now, they waited.


Buck and JD were going through the general store, looking at everything. Buck paused over the rack of guns and examined each one, his mouth forming a hard line when he spotted the concho studded holster. He passed over it and then found the mare’s leg.

Glancing at the store clerk, he said, "You got a fine collection of firearms here."

With out looking up, the clerk shrugged and said, "It’s a dangerous place here ‘bouts. People need protection."

Buck caught Nathan’s eye, and with a nod drew his attention to the holster and then the mare’s leg. Taking the conchoed holster down, Buck examined it to see if it was Chris’ gun still in it. "How much mister, for this gun and holster?"

The clerk looking up tried to decide how much the lanky cowboy could pay. "Well, seeing that it’s used how ‘bout three dollars for the both of them."

Buck shook his head. "Damn, that’s a little high don’t you think? ‘Specially for such a worn rig." He studied the holster again. "Tell you what, I sure do like the conchos, so you throw in that mare’s leg and I’ll give you five dollars for the lot."

The clerk hesitated until he saw Buck start to put the holster back. "It’s a deal. I want coin, no paper mind you."

Buck nodded, and digging into his pocket brought out two sliver dollars, "JD you got any silver?"

"Yeah here."

They laid the five silver dollars on the counter and gathered up the guns. "JD, go put these in the packs."

"Sure, Buck." JD looked around once he was outside and noted where the others were.

After packing the guns away, he went back into the store. "Buck?"

"Yeah, Kid?"

"We’d better go outside."

Buck and Nathan looked hard at JD, and without a word, headed toward the door. They separated a bit once outside and watched Chris.


Josiah leaned against the wall. He could hear Billy banging on a door. "Sam? Sam get your ass out here."

A muffled voice replied. "Damn it, Billy, I’m busy here."

"Get out here, we got big trouble."

Then angry voice of Sam came clearer this time. "What the hell do you want? I said I was busy."

"Them two we left for dead, well they’re here and looking for us. We gotta get out of here."

"Yer crazy. They’re dead."

"They ain’t." Billy pointed at the nick on his neck. "Does this look like I’m crazy? They’re here and they want blood. Ours. I say we ride."

Sam stared at the spot of dried blood. "Where’s the others?’

Billy shook his head. "Jose is with Carmelita and Jorge is in a poker game at the Last Dog."

"You tell them."

"Hell no, I came to you first."

Sam turned back inside to get dressed. "Go get Jose. I’ll be out in a minute. Don’t know what you’re so worried about, they was almost dead when we left them and the gunslinger can’t draw. We saw to that."

Without answering, Billy went down the row of doors and windows and stopped at the last one. Taking a breath, he banged on the door. "Jose, get dressed and get out here, we got trouble."

"Go away or I will shoot you."

"Get out here now or we’ll all be dead."

The door cracked open and a blood shot eye appeared. " What the hell do you want?"

Billy went through the almost identical conversation again. Then with a nod, he backed away and headed back to where Sam stood waiting for him. They both waited and checked their guns.

Jose joined them giving them both a dirty look. "I can’t believe you two are afraid of two half dead gringos."

"They don’t look half dead no more." Billy mumbled as they walked out into the street.

Josiah faded back so that they wouldn’t notice him as they passed. He looked at Chris and then Buck, nodding.

Chris stood straighter and glanced at Vin. "You got business elsewhere. You going now or waiting ‘til this is finished?"

Vin watched as Buck, JD and Nathan stepped into the street and walked toward Chris.

He shrugged, slapping the air palm down with his hand.

Chris stood at the edge of the boardwalk until Buck and the others were close and then he too, stepped out into the street. Vin walked behind them to the far side and stood beside Nathan.

The three Comancheros spread out. They were not gunslingers but they were confident that because they had ‘ruined’ the man in black’s gun hand they had a chance. Swallowing, they glanced at the five men they faced.

Chris and Buck took a few steps away from the rest and faced the now nervous Comancheros. Chris glanced at Buck and nodded. "Stay back boys," he said to the others more for the Comancheros benefit than them.

Jose, standing in the middle, studied the gunfighter. He noticed the hand hidden in the duster pocket but he also saw the cross draw holster. He then eyed the big man to the left of Chris. Both stood loose limbed but ready, watching, and Jose became afraid. Raising his chin, his eyes hard, he went for his gun.

In a flurry of motion, five guns were drawn but only three barked as Chris shot twice and Buck once. Billy’s gun went off harmlessly into the ground as he fell. The other two barely cleared leather as they felt the pain and shock of the shots hitting them.

Vin, without a backward glance, slipped off to the back of the buildings where Jorge was supposed to be playing cards.

At the sound of the gunfire, Jorge looked up into the gambler’s unreadable face. Standing suddenly, he looked through the window, and glimpsing the black duster he headed for the back door. He would go out the back and head for the livery, where his horse was.

Glancing outside the back door he saw nobody there. Jorge started walking toward the livery. Suddenly there was Vin standing in front of him. The tracker had shucked the poncho and the holster and gun that Buck had given him. Instead, in his hand he held the razor sharp bowie knife he’d practiced with for the last week.

Jorge stopped. As the seconds passed he noticed Vin’s bent kneed stance, the knife, and the feral, tight-lipped grin on the tracker’s face. The Comanchero leader drew his knife and dropped into the same bent knee stance.

They began circling. "Tell me, puta, how is your throat these days?" He taunted, watching for an opening. Taking a step forward, he jabbed to Vin’s left, making the tracker dodge and then swipe with his knife also.

Then the circling began again. Jorge’s reach was longer and he stepped forward and tried to run his knife across Vin’s arm. Vin dropped and slashed the blade of his knife across Jorge’s abdominal wall. His knife dug deep and Jorge felt his belly open He looked down in shock as he saw the twisted intestines push their way past the damaged muscles and the cloth of his shirt. Dropping his knife he pressed both hands against the protrusion, and as the pain hit he looked up disbelief on his face.

Vin stepped forward, and grabbing the front of Jorge’s shirt with one hand, he pushed the knife into the Comanchero up to the hilt, just below the sternum, pointing up. He leaned forward and the last thing Jorge heard came from the tracker. " I win, pihisi?apu taen."

Vin pulled the knife out and let the body fall. He stood over it, breathing hard. Then reaching down, he casually wiped his knife clean on the shirt. Then, stepping over the body he walked to the street to join the others.

Chris stood by Pony, surrounded by the others, waiting. This was Vin’s fight and he’d stay out of it for now. He didn’t realize how tense he was until he saw the tracker limping toward him.

Vin walked past Chris, and taking Peso’s reins, he rubbed the geldings’ nose.

Chris looked him over, and asked, "Is it done?"

Vin nodded, and swinging up on Peso’s back, he said. "It’s done. Let’s go home."

Chris smiled as he mounted his own horse. The voice was lower, raspier, but it was there. Turning Pony around to where he faced Vin, they locked arms and eyes.

"Let’s ride."


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Author’s note: pihisi?apu taen The literal translation of this from Comanche is ‘cowardly anus’. Now insults don’t translate well and Lynda said that to Vin and Jorge it would mean that he was a coward and betrayer of his people and to his puha (personal power or medicine), the worst kind of betrayer.