Shattered Spirits

by The Buffalo Gals (Sue Diver & Colleen Newton)

Buck stirred, rolling onto his back with a deep groan. His head hurt badly. He opened his eyes, aware of a frantic voice, somewhere behind him.

"Buck.... Buck, is that you?"

Buck groaned again and tried to sit up. He managed to lean onto his elbows before the throbbing in his head stopped him. The voice came again.

"Buck! Buck, talk to me!" The voice sounded terrible, almost wild.

"Vin?" Buck groaned, struggling onto his knees and sliding over to where the voice was coming from. He found himself staring at a heavy wooden door. "Is that you pard?"

A half sob stopped him in his tracks and he pinned his ear to the door.

"Y’gotta go, Buck. She's crazy, she'll kill ya"

Buck heard Vin collapse against the other side of the door, and the sound of chains rattling.

"She?" He whispered. Ezra had been correct; there was a woman involved. He jumped as the outer door to the barn opened and two burly men approached him, "We got company," he told Vin as the men grabbed his arms and pulled him to his feet.

"You can see the prisoner now," Cassidy said flatly, turning Buck to face the door. He took out a key and unlocked it, "You can see him, then you have to go."

Buck heard Vin scuttle away from the wood. He stood on uneasy legs and waited for the door to open.

Cassidy pushed him inside, unbalancing him, then he turned on the figure cowering in the corner, "Say anythin’ outta line and I'll have to shoot your friend." He glared at Buck who was picking himself back up. "You got five minutes. We'll be waitin’ out here, try anythin’ stupid and we'll kill you both." He turned and walked outside, leaving the door ajar.

Buck hurried to the figure huddled in the shadows. Vin was half naked and covered in blood. He reeked of urine and waste, but Buck ignored it as best he could as he sat down next to him, taking in the glazed eyes and shivering body.

Slipping off his jacket he placed it around Vin's shoulders. Each time his fingers touched the younger man's flesh there was a whimper of agony; so painful were the wounds.

"Y’look like hell, buddy. How ya holdin' up?" Buck asked as he slipped an arm around Vin and drew him close. Though the words were light, he was deeply shocked by his friend's condition.

" 'm scared Buck," Vin said through chattering teeth. He rested his forehead on Buck's shoulder and closed his eyes.

Wilmington was taken aback by the bounty hunter's admission. He brushed blood matted hair away from Vin's fevered brow and told him, "We're comin' to get ya out of here, remember that. Just gotta hold on ‘til then."

"Don' know if I can... Buck..." Vin moaned weakly, "If’n I don't make it..."

"Hey! What kinda talk is that?"

Vin shook his head, "If I don't make it will ya tell Chris I don't blame anyone." He glanced up at the larger man with imploring eyes, "..please."

"Sure," Buck whispered, his face grim, "But better still, why don't you tell him yourself."

Quiet, now that he'd said his piece, Vin relaxed in Buck's embrace. "We're close to town, it’s the …" .

"Time's up!" Cassidy yelled, silencing Vin before he could put a name to the homestead. He kicked the tracker in the stomach, then he and Eli grabbed hold of Buck's arms to drag him away..

Buck wrestled with them aware of Vin lying on his back in the corner, gasping for breath. He got a couple of good punches in before Eli pinned his arms behind his back.

"Now you're gonna take a message back to your pack." Cassidy laughed, punching the defenceless man in the stomach until he keeled over.

"No!" Vin screamed from the back of the room, winding his feet around Eli's ankles, toppling the man over. He received a kick in the ribs for his trouble, and had to watch helplessly as the two thugs punched Buck into oblivion.

+ + + + + + +

Victoria stepped down from her buggy, handing the reins to Yosemite before gathering her basket from the seat,

"It's been a beautiful day for a picnic," she said sweetly, “I won’t be needing them for a few days.” She indicated towards the horse and buggy.

"Just tell me the night before Ma-am and they'll be waitin’ fer you the next mornin’." Yosemite tipped his hat to her, recognising her as a true lady. There weren't many of them around. "I hope yer careful when you go out. Never know what thieves are around. See a pretty lady like you and who knows..." He blushed deeply as she fluttered her eyelashes at him.

"Oh you are a sweet man and thank you for caring. However I do carry a gun; just in case. And I'm not afraid to use it."

"Good fer you."

Wishing him a good evening, Victoria stepped lightly over to the saloon on pretence of buying a bottle of brandy, for 'medicinal purposes' and noticed the sad gathering in the corner.

"Mr. Larabee. Mr. Standish." She smiled at the two men slumped in their seats, "I trust you are feeling better now?" she asked Ezra, squeezing his shoulder gently, while never taking her eyes off the brooding leader.

Ezra looked up and smiled broadly, "Very much better, thank you Ma-am," he said, raising his glass and downing it with a grimace.

She smiled back, "I'm glad to hear it. It's a terrible day when a man gets himself shot for doing a good turn."

"Yes Ma-am." Ezra agreed wholeheartedly.

She turned her attention to Chris. His eyes betrayed the torment he felt and she revelled in it.

"Any news of Mr. Tanner?" Her lip quivered in mock distress.

"None." Chris replied coldly, his voice a steady as a rock.

She stifled a cry and said in a small, tearful voice, “The poor soul."

Ezra grasped her hand and she held onto it tightly "It is cruel that we do not know his fate." She lamented, feeling Ezra's grip tighten on her fingers as her words sank in. "Would we know sir, if he were dead?" Her eyes were fixed on Chris.

Victoria's words hurt the gunslinger; she was saying what he hadn't dared to think. A cold dread ceased him, making him catch his breath. He couldn't answer her, the words stuck in his throat. He stood up, tried to say something, then turned and fled, leaving her clutching Ezra's hand and weeping softly.

Outside, the cool air cleared Chris' head a little. He drifted over to the jail house and slumped down on the steps. He didn't care for anyone's company right now. He looked out over the main street. The waiting was the worst part; he felt so helpless.

The sounds of the street lulled Chris, he settled against the rails and closed his eyes.

Drifting into an uneasy sleep, he was awoken when Victoria sat down by his side. Reaching out to him, she stroked the unruly blond hair from his face.

Chris shied away from her touch and eyed her warily.

"You looked so defenceless sitting there," she explained, "I just wanted to help you." She touched his face with her fingertips.

Chris stood up unsteadily, glared at her then strode away.

"Mr. Larabee!" She called after him, running along until she was walking with him, "I didn't mean to be so presumptuous." She placed a hand on his arm; he stopped and looked at her.

"Please allow me to make amends." Her eyes begged for forgiveness, "I know. Would you take a night-cap with me?"

Larabee looked down at the woman before him, understanding now why Vin had felt so uncomfortable around her. She stirred something in Chris, something that alarmed him. She knew how to dig up his greatest fears, "I'm not good company right now," he gasped.

Victoria smiled demurely, " Just one drink. I have to take a few sips every night, it helps me to sleep. " She took the bottle from her bag, "We could take it out here. I don't like drinking it, but perhaps in company it might taste a little better."

He nodded defeatedly, just wishing she'd go away.

They sat on the long bench outside the general store and Chris accepted the glass that magically appeared in her hand.

Victoria smiled secretively, she'd dropped a powder into the man's drink before she handed it to him. The old Indian shaman she’d bought the drug from had promised her it would work quickly.

Chris downed the drink in one gulp and was soon feeling drowsy. He tipped forward in his seat, caught by her firm grasp,

"Why don't you lie down for a while," she soothed, helping him to slide his legs upon to the bench and rest his head on her lap.

She cradled him gently, removing her glove and running a fingertip over his eyebrows, then his eyes and finally his lips. "You may think you're suffering now Chris Larabee," she drawled, "But there's a whole lot more in store for you." She laughed softly, aware of the townsfolk gossiping.

+ + + + + + +

Across the street, Mary Travis looked out of her newspaper office, a tinge of jealousy biting at her heart. Why would Chris relax in such a way with Victoria Larson, what did the auburn haired woman possess that Mary didn't?

'Nothing!' she said to herself, 'you're just being silly.' And the more she looked at the scene, the more Mary realised that she was being silly. Chris was asleep, nothing more. They weren't speaking words of love to each other. In fact, Victoria had a strange look on her face. There was nothing loving about her countenance; far from it.

Then why was she playing up to Chris? Her journalistic mind taking over, Mary decided to investigate the woman and her motives.

+ + + + + + +

It was late evening when Chris' black gelding came galloping into town, terrified by the bundle it was dragging behind it.

Nathan and Josiah, walking over to the church, were the first to see the animal and hurried into the middle of the street to slow its progress.

Outside the general store and with great timing, Victoria screamed, waking up a groggy Chris who staggered to his feet, gun swinging wildly around. Then he saw the bundle being unfastened from the rope attached to the gelding's saddle.

He raced towards the heap on the floor, yelling at the top of his voice, "Buck!" He skidded to a halt and dropped to his knees, turning his friend over. Buck's face was a bloody pulp. Chris gasped in horror as Nathan ripped open Buck's shirt and placed a hand over his chest. They were all horrified at the extensive bruising stretching around Buck's torso. Nathan let out his held breath in relief; their friend was still alive.

Chris cradled Buck's head in his hands and lowered his forehead to rest on the injured man's, "What have you done?" He moaned softly, "Why did you do this for me?" Aware of Josiah's hands on his shoulders, Chris stood up and moved back, allowing his two friends to deal with Buck.

Ezra stumbled from the saloon to join his friends in the street, almost falling into Chris' arms as he tried to look down at their fallen comrade.

"Take it easy," Chris said, setting Ezra onto his feet, "He's alive."

Ezra straightened, his fists curling into Chris' lapels as he tried to stay upright. "What are we going to do?" he asked, his tone desperate.

Chris pushed him away, almost unbalancing him, "I don't know!" he shouted, "I don't have all the answers." He caught his next retort in his throat, aware that he was castigating the wrong people. He made a hopeless gesture with his hands then turned back to Buck, rubbing at his eyes with the heel of one hand. Ezra reached out to touch his shoulder, but Chris pulled free, he wasn't in the mood for sympathy right now.

+ + + + + +

Across the street, Victoria smiled as she watched the scene. Larabee was falling apart at the seams and she was responsible. She gathered her bag and slipped away, content with her evening's work; unaware that she too was being observed.

Chris watched Nathan and Josiah carefully pick Buck up and carry him over to the clinic, Ezra in their wake, grasping tightly hold of Buck's hat which Nathan had removed.

Chris didn't follow, he didn't know what to do. He looked over to the black horse; his horse. It was taking a long drink from the trough. Chris moved to its side and pulled the reins gently, making it step back from the water.

"Not so fast, boy," he said to the steaming animal, "You'll give yourself a chill."

Slowly he led the horse back to the barn and removed its saddle and bridle, rubbing its damp coat down with a straw wisp. He needed to do something to save himself from going crazy.

When the animal was cool and dried, he offered it water. The horse snickered softly as it drank its fill, then it settled, resting a hind leg as it dozed. Chris buried his face in the horse's mane and vent his frustration; the animal would not betray his weakness.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan checked Buck over for broken bones, especially his ribs, but found there to be little damage to the man's torso, despite the discoloration. The bruising could be explained, he’d been kicked and punched. However, his face was another matter; he was black and blue, with one eyelid split open, as were his lips.

"Gonna need a stitch over the eye, stem the bleedin’," he told Josiah who was carefully washing off the dirt and grime that covered Buck.

"Ain’t gonna be courtin' the ladies for a while, that's for sure," the preacher mused. "What's wrong Doc?" He'd noticed Nathan's puzzled expression.

"I don't think he was dragged far. Ain’t enough damage."

Ezra who'd been watching, without actually participating, said, "Maybe they didn't want him to die."

Josiah looked at him and nodded, "A messenger. Well he won't be tellin’ us anythin’ tonight." Turning towards Nathan he asked, "Are you goin'' to sew him up now, while he's out of it?"

"Sure be easier," the black man replied.

Ezra, realising what was about to happen excused himself, "Ah don't think you need me for this, " he said, scurrying out of the room, "Ah'll go and inform JD what has occurred.”

"Don't ya go upsettin’ that boy!" Nathan called. JD was being an un-co-operative patient. "All I seem to do just lately is patch up one of us," he grumbled, knowing he could complain in front of Josiah without sounding selfish or angry.

"Wonderin’ which one of us is going to be next?"

"No, wonderin’ what state we're goin' to find Vin in, and if I'll be able enough to help him."

Josiah reached out and patted Nathan on the shoulder. "You are a good healer. Just cause you ain't got no fancy letters behind yer name, don't mean yer not capable. I trust you with my life, I'm sure if Vin was here he'd say the same."

Nathan finally smiled. Josiah always knew the right thing to say. "Thanks. Well, let's get Romeo here stitched up, then I'll go and find Chris."

They'd both noticed their leader’s non-appearance. "Someone has got to sit with Buck tonight. It might as well be him."

+ + + + + + +

Chris spent an uneasy night sitting by Buck's bedside, willing the beaten man to awaken. Nathan had warned him not disturb Wilmington, just to be there in case the injured man needed anything. However, the waiting was wearing Chris down; how easy it would be to get hold of Buck's shoulders and rouse him.

Eventually he fell into a drug induced sleep, resting his forehead on his arms on the edge of Buck's bed. That's how Mary found them the next morning, and it was her sweet scent that roused Buck.

Buck was drifting through a valley of high meadow grass, trying hard to spot Vin, who was dodging through the grass at a run; his naked back, criss crossed with ugly open wounds. He shouted to the man, imploring him to stop. Each time Vin stopped, he would die a little, until the flesh hung off his bones in shreds and his eyes stared emptily.

Buck reached out to touch his brow; Vin turned to dust....

That's when he caught the fragrance and opened his eyes, gazing up at Mary who was tending to the cut on his temple.

"Are you an angel?" he asked softly, watching her face as she worked.

"You are very fortunate that I'm not." Mary told him coolly, straightening up and picking up a glass. "Would you like some water?" She helped him to raise his head and a take a drink. He saw Chris still sleeping, the man's head resting next to him.

Buck reached out and touched the blond hair, "Chris?" he called to him.

"It might be better to let him rest," Mary said, marvelling at the closeness of the two men, "He had a hard day."

Buck looked up at her. "I bet he did," he replied, stroking the long fringe from the man's face.

Mary touched his arm, trying to stop him from disturbing the sleeping man.

"You don't understand," Buck explained, "I need to speak with him about Vin. We ain’t got much time."

She nodded, suitably chastised. Then she knelt by Chris and dabbed cool water onto his face. "Chris," she called to him, "Chris, wake up."

Her gentle persuasion worked and Chris stirred, groaning at the headache that threatened to purge his empty stomach.

Buck reached out and touched his arm. "We need to talk," he said seriously. He blinked away moisture from his swollen eyes and gazed up at his friend; concern on his face. Larabee had aged in the short time they'd been apart, his eyes were sunken and dull, his face gaunt.

He pulled himself further up the bed, then asked Mary to leave. Casting a worried glance at Chris before departing, she nodded, quietly closing the door behind her. Buck's words ' we don't have much time’ echoed in her head.

The two men stared at each other, Chris being the first one to speak, "I oughta shoot you for what you did," he growled softly, clasping Buck's offered hand firmly in a salute.

"Hell, I wouldn't feel it if ya did," Buck grinned, wincing as he did so.

"Did you see him?" Chris asked urgently, needing to hear Buck's news quickly.

"I did," Buck replied solemnly, taking a few moments before continuing, "And I gotta say Chris, he's in a bad way. Ain't no guarantee he'll make it through." He watched the other man absorb each piece of information, feeling a great empathy for the pain he caused. He added softly, "He's been whipped within an inch of his life and he's fevered." He watched as the other man took each piece of information as if a bullet was hitting him. " He's in a barn, chained to the walls like a wild animal," Buck paused, feeling the pain his words implied, "He said its a woman done this to him. And that he's close to town."

Chris' eyes narrowed as he cursed through his teeth, "What damned woman would do this to a man?"

Buck leaned forward, speaking in a low voice, "What I want to know is, is this personal or is this woman after all of us?" He watched as Chris digested the information. He knew if the latter prognosis were correct, Chris would be greatly disturbed; he wouldn't want Vin to suffer on his behalf.

+ + + + + + +

Mary Travis walked wearily out of the hotel and began to make her way home, then she turned and walked back towards the livery stable. If time was running out for Vin as Buck had suggested, she'd have to move quickly, yet she was still unwilling to mention her thoughts to any of the men. Chris was too near the edge and might do something rash before anything was proven, Buck and Ezra were recovering from their own injuries as was JD. Which only left Josiah and Nathan. She'd talk to them, if and when she was sure of her convictions. But first she had to ask questions, not a daunting proposition for the owner of a newspaper.

"Good day Yosemite." She smiled as she walked up to the owner of the stables.

"Miz Travis, don't see enough of you. How's that boy of yours doin?"

"He's fine, thank you. I was wondering how your business is faring?"

The large man smiled broadly, "Why, it's very good. Miz Travis. Best it's ever been. Those men the judge hired keep their animals stabled here permanently ... and those boys pay me well for takin’ care of ‘em."

"I see you hire out a horse and buggy, too. I've seen Mrs. Larson taking them out on several occasions," Mary said as she walked over to Buck's striking grey horse and stroked it on the neck.

"She sure does. Takes good care of them too. A fine lady. Always got a smile for me.”

"That's nice. Has she ever told you where she goes?"

"Picnics. I told her she ought to be more careful riding out alone. But she said she could take care of herself."

"Picnics?" Mary replied, sounding interested in the idea, "I must ask her where. Maybe she knows of a nice spot I could take Billy out for the day. Has she ever mentioned anywhere specific?"

Yosemite thought seriously for a moment before replying, "Cain't say that she has. But I don't think it's far. Old Millie never comes home sweated up or tired." He took off his hat and scratched his head, "Miz Travis, why you curious 'bout my bizness?"

Mary was ready with the reply, having thought one up beforehand, "I'm going around all the local businesses to see if they'd like to advertise in my newspaper. But as you're doing so well, there's no need for you to spend unnecessary money, is there."

"No indeed.... but thanks fer askin'. I'll keep it in mind." He tipped his hat to her then wandered to the back of the stables, pitchfork in hand.

+ + + + + + +

Once Chris had left Buck to catch up on some healing sleep, he made his way over to the jail house. Josiah was on duty and Chris needed to talk to someone about Buck's disturbing news.

He pushed the door open and heard the click as a rifle was cocked. He stopped and looked over towards the sound. The figure in the chair relaxed, then Ezra said in a low voice,

"Ah hope you are not going to censure me for taking over from Josiah?"

Chris smiled at his words and shook his head," No, I don't think so." He crossed the room and touched Ezra's shoulder as he passed, wondering if he should tell the young man of his conversation, "You've been a rock these last few days and I appreciate that." He took a rifle from the gun cupboard and began to load it.

Ezra watched him, heartened by his words. He badly wanted to ask questions but was reluctant to trouble Chris with them. He turned back to the desk and continued to cut the cards before him.

Chris dragged over a chair and sat down next to the gambler. Ezra placed the cards on the table and laid his hands on his lap, waiting for Chris to speak, uneasy in the natural silence. Eventually he looked across at the man, surprised to see he was being scrutinised.

Chris was the first to speak, "Do we know of any women that are our enemies?"

Ezra sighed; he'd been correct. A woman was involved. "We've made many enemies in this work." He considered the question carefully, "Ah suppose there must be a lot of widows out there who would like to even the score."

Chris nodded, mulling over the gambler's answer. "Vin managed to tell Buck that it was a woman runnin’ the show .

Vin's been whipped, beaten ... Buck say's he's in a bad way." He could hardly speak, "Maybe he won't make it."

Ezra's hands returned to the playing cards and he began to tear them up into small pieces. He liked Vin, respected him. The tracker had been more accepting towards Ezra in the early days, something he appreciated.

He looked at Chris, saw the anguish in his face and knew that what he was suffering was nothing compared to what their leader was going through, and he dare not even consider the agony poor Vin was enduring.

Ezra shuddered despite the warmth of the room, "Ah couldn't go through the torture that Vin is."

Chris frowned and nodded, " We have to draw her out somehow ..... get her to make a mistake."


"I don't know Ezra. I think it's time we all got together again. She's split us up quite effectively."

"Which means she or one of her acquaintances are in town now, observing our every move."

"Then let's give her something to think about. She's presumin’ that we won't give in until we find Vin, that we care enough about him."

Ezra smiled, understanding Chris' thoughts, " But, if we stop bothering about him she may leave him alone. " The smile faded, " Or she might kill him ..."

"No, I don't think she wants him dead yet .... but she may come after one of us again .... this time we'll be ready."

Relieved to see Chris thinking clearly again, acting as their leader, Ezra nodded in agreement, "Ah'll tell the boys to meet in the saloon. Do you think Buck's up to walking about?"

"He will be, when I tell him of our decision." Chris stood up, unloaded the rifle and locked it back in the cupboard; he felt as if a heavy weight had been lifted from his shoulders. As Josiah often remarked, their paths were sometimes difficult to follow. Chris had strayed from his; he'd become wrapped up in his own emotions, but now he could see a clear way. Ruffling Ezra's perfectly coiffured hair as he passed him, Chris thanked him.

"May Ah ask what for?" Ezra replied as he finger combed his hair back into place.

"Just being here. Helping me clear the dead wood from my brain." Chris exited the jail house with a spring in his step that had been missing for many days.

+ + + + + + +

What a motley crew they'd become, Chris thought grimly as they once again gathered around the corner table in the saloon. How long had it been since they'd last sat down together? It seemed a lifetime ago, and how they'd all changed in that time.

Nathan sat next to JD, fussing over the youngster. It was JD's first trip out and he looked shaky on his feet. His expressive brown eyes still held a hint of pain, but Chris could see that the young man was glad to be there, involved once more as a member of the team.

Nathan looked tired; was tired, yet he'd never complain. He and Josiah were the only two unaffected by the mystery woman's torment, up until now. They had to be strong for the others.

Ezra was recovering well, he covered his ordeal with the usual aplomb. His only weakness a glimpse of the haunted look they all shared.

Buck .... Chris had been doubtful about including Buck at the meeting. The ladies’ man was doubled up in pain and his face was still a sorry mess. This hadn’t stopped him flirting with the saloon girls, or deterred them from reciprocating.

Chris swallowed his doubts; Buck would prevail.

Josiah had become the rock. They all depended on him to say and do the right thing. Chris particularly needed his quiet strength.

It was Josiah who spoke first. "We're all here Chris. We've all heard 'bout Buck's meetin’ with Vin." He took a drink of beer, brushing the froth away from his whiskers. "What are we goin' to do next."

"Nothin’." Chris replied bluntly.

"Wha....?" JD looked at him horrified.

"You cain't mean that," Buck answered indignantly.

"We cain't give up, Chris." Nathan replied thoughtfully.

Ezra remained silent, already aware of Chris' idea.

"What've we been doin' for the last few weeks, huh? Runnin' around like headless chickens, just like she wants us to,” Chris explained, once his colleagues had quietened, "She's trying to break us up, then she can take us one at a time."

"You really think she's after all of us?" Nathan asked.

Chris nodded, "I'm sure of it."

"But why do so much to Vin?" JD asked as he absently rubbed his aching shoulder.

“That I don't know. Maybe it didn't matter which one of us she got hold of. But Vin bein' out there alone was an easy target." Chris leaned forward over the table as they all listened to him intently, "We've been dancin' to her tune long enough.”

"But if we do nothin' we'll never find Vin." JD still wasn't convinced.

"It's a chance we have to take."

"I don't know, Chris. Vin could still end up dead if she thinks he's no longer useful."

"Buck, we have no choice. We're no wiser now. All we know is that it's a woman and Vin thinks he's close to town." Chris nodded towards Ezra. "We think she or one of her men may be in town right now, keepin' an eye on us."

The statement caused them all to move uneasily in their chairs, and they lowered their voices.

JD glanced around the saloon; surely he knew everyone at the bar? Weren't they all regular customers? "What do we do?"

"Like I said, nothin'. Make it appear that we don't care."

Ezra, noticing JD's baffled frown, explained, "The female in question will no longer be able to pull our strings if we stop behaving like marionettes."

"Mari ... what?"

"Puppets, JD. String puppets."

"And if she wants to continue this little game, she'll have to change tactics."

"And make a mistake, hopefully," Buck surmised, downing his beer in one go.

"So we pretend we don't care what happens to Vin. That life goes on.... and somehow this news will get back to her."

Chris looked at them all in turn and was gratified to see them nodding in agreement.

It would be a difficult pretence to carry. All of their thoughts were concentrated on Vin Tanner and the torture he was suffering.

+ + + + + + +

The dish of 'food' was placed on the floor before Vin and next to it was a cup of the filthy liquid they called water! Whatever was in the dish looked inedible, but Vin knew if he didn't eat it willingly, Cassidy would force it down him. It was all part of the punishment that now occurred nearly every waking moment.

His fingers delved uncertainly into the meal and he forced it into his mouth, swallowing it without chewing as it tasted worse than it looked. He wretched as the smell of it assailed his nostrils.

"Every piece boy, and if you throw it back up ..." Cassidy didn't need to go on, Vin had already been through that torment.

Vin’s stomach lurched as he swallowed every mouthful of the stinking mess, then drank the dubious liquid. They'd long since stopped fastening his hands behind his back; he was too weak and sick to fight back.

He spent his waking hours in constant fear. Pressed tightly against the far wall of his tiny room he tried to ease his aching back and stomach as best he could.

The beatings had stopped for the moment, yet in his fevered condition he didn't realise and whenever he saw a figure walking towards him he crawled deeper into the shadows.

He thought he'd seen Buck; spoken to him; or had it been a wishful dream? Why would Buck come here and not rescue him? His troubled mind could find only one answer; he wasn't worthy of rescuing. No one cared if he lived or died. Chris and the others had abandoned him.

Vin's only companion now was a solitary rat that scurried around and over him, whenever the chance arose. The rodent was excited by the smell of Vin's blood. It had already taken a few nips at him, but up to now he'd been able to shoo it away. However, each time the exhausted man slipped into an uncomfortable sleep the tiny beast was there, its dark eyes sparkling with anticipation.

+ + + + + + +

Victoria checked herself out in the dressing mirror, and approved of what she saw. The clothes she wore were expensive, yet demure, her long auburn hair, pinned back out of sight. She couldn't put on any show of strength, yet if anyone were to look deep into her hazel eyes, they'd see determination shining through.

She'd be travelling to the homestead later, to gloat over the pathetic creature who'd once been known as Vin Tanner, but first she needed to talk to Larabee again. To twist the knife deeper; watch him squirm.

She picked up her purse, wrapped the lace shawl around her shoulders and stepped out into the hotel corridor, almost bumping into Buck Wilmington.

"Oops! Sorry Ma-am, didn't see ya there."

"No need to explain Mr. Wilmington. I can understand why." She indicated to his still swollen eyes. "How are you feeling today? It must have been a terrible experience for you."

"Certainly was Ma-am," Buck replied as they walked downstairs together, "But I'm slowly recovering."

"Thank goodness for that. And dare I ask if there is any news about poor Mr. Tanner?"

Buck shrugged non-committedly. "We tried our best Ma-am, but to be honest, when I saw him that day I don't think he had much time left. Chris and I ... we've decided we've done enough. What's the point searchin', maybe gettin' shot, lookin fer a dead man."

"Oh, but I thought you all cared about him?"

"Not as much as we thought," Buck replied lightly, tipping his hat politely. "Good day, Mrs. Larson. Always a pleasure to talk to you."

Victoria stared angrily at Buck as he walked out of the hotel, unable to believe what she'd just heard. Surely Larabee didn't think the same. Maybe Wilmington's refusal to be involved was a personal thing.

She strode over to the hotel reception and asked them to have a picnic basket ready for lunch time, then she went in search of Chris Larabee.

+ + + + + + +

Inez placed the plate of tortillas in front of Chris, and smiling sexily, she said, "Enjoy sir."

"Thanks." Chris smiled back. The lovely young Mexican woman had melted all of their hearts and they trusted her enough to tell her of their plan. Mary was also in on the deception, although she'd still not told them of her idea as to who the mysterious woman was. She couldn't go to Chris unless she had proof, afraid that he might think her being petulant and jealous.

As Inez walked away, she looked surprised to see the latest customer walking through the swing doors. "Buenos Dias, Mrs. Larson."

Chris looked up sharply at the mention of her name. He was in no mood for talking, certainly not to Victoria.

From originally enjoying her company, he now found Victoria cold and depressing. He knew it was a cruel thought. The poor woman had suffered a great loss, like himself. But life went on, Mary Travis was a fine example of that adage.

The food soured in his mouth when Victoria walked over to him.

"Mr. Larabee, am I interrupting your lunch?"

"I am busy," he replied, refusing to stand up, or offer her a seat.

"May I?" She ignored his bad manners and sat down in the seat opposite him.

Shrugging, Chris continued to eat, aware of her watching him intently.

"What can I do for you?" he finally asked, finishing off the last mouthful.

"I've just had a most disturbing talk with Mr. Wilmington, " she said, fanning away the tobacco smoke that shrouded the saloon.

"Buck! Why what's he been telling you?" Chris asked, sighing with relief when Ezra came limping into the bar.

"I asked how you were progressing in your search for Mr. Tanner and he said you'd given up looking."

"True ... Ezra, sit down ‘fore you fall."

Ezra frowned; he'd intended joining the poker game on the next table, but seeing the pleading look on Chris' face he slumped into the chair next to Victoria, politely greeting her as he did so.

"Mrs. Larson's just heard about us givin' up the search for Vin. She didn't believe it.”

Ezra smiled, "Oh, why not? Ah personally think we have wasted enough of our valuable time in the pursuit of Mr. Tanner. Ah have been shot, as has JD. And Buck suffered a terrible beating. Ah think we have all done more than enough to retrieve him."

"I can't believe you. I thought you were men of honour?"

"Only when there is a remuneration involved," Ezra replied brightly.

Chris sniggered into his beer, "Sorry if we've disappointed you, lady." He stood up and threw a dollar to Inez, who deftly caught it. " ... but we ain’t knights in shinin’ armour." He sauntered out of the saloon without a word of good-bye.

Victoria, angry at being snubbed so openly, glared harshly at Ezra, then she too left the establishment.

Inez sat down in the seat just vacated by Victoria and took hold of the southerner's hand, "I do not like that woman."

"Ah must admit, her demeanour has become disagreeable."

"And the perfume she wears is so strong."

"Perfume?" Ezra sniffed the air. Inez smelled fresh and clean, with no trace of perfume, then, a fragrance; something that brought back a memory, caught on his nostrils. "Oh dear Lord," he drawled as his face turned ashen, "Oh ... it cannot be. "

"Ezra, what is wrong?"

"Ah'm not sure. Maybe nothing." Without further explanation he left the saloon.

Ezra was uncertain what action to take next. Just because Victoria wore Lavender perfume, it didn't make her the kidnapper. No, he'd need more proof than that. But if he didn't act soon…. Dammit! Why did he suddenly have a conscience?

While he was mulling over the problem, Victoria drove by in her buggy, the angry look still on her face.

Ezra went in search of Chris, only to be told by Yosemite that Chris had just rode out, muttering something about needing time to think.

Deciding that there was nothing more he could do until Chris returned, Ezra returned to the saloon and Inez.

+ + + + + + +

"Ma-am, he ain't gonna last much longer"

"He'd better!" Victoria glared at Cassidy as he helped her off the buggy. "A few more days, that's all I need. Is he coherent?"

"Ma-am?" Cassidy's vocabulary didn't run to such fancy words.

"Does he know where he is… who he is?"

"Barely. Keeps babblin’ on about his momma ... and Larabee. From what I can catch of his ramblin’s, he thinks he's been abandoned."

A victorious smile brightened up the woman's stern face. " He does? How right he is. They have abandoned him, though I am surprised at Larabee, I thought he'd remain loyal to his so-called friend." She stepped out sharply towards the barn.

"Ain't you goin’ to hide yer face?" Cassidy asked as he followed behind her.

"Not this time. I want him to know who did this to him and why."

"Gotta warn you, Ma-am, he ain't a pretty sight. None of my men'll go near him now. The stench turns their stomach."

"Not yours?"

"Made of stronger stuff," Cassidy replied arrogantly, refusing to admit that he'd thrown his supper up a few times.

"Are your men ready? Do they know what they have to do?"

"Sure do Ma-am. And looking forward to it. 'bout time them gunslingers were taken down."

"And once they're gone, the town is yours. "

Cassidy savoured the idea. It would be a just reward for the work he'd done. He'd not been into Four Corners since they'd abducted Tanner. He’d allowed his less known associates to watch the place and the six remaining men.

What he looked forward to most was taming the snooty bitch who ran the town's newspaper. She was an ice maiden, and he was the man to make her melt

" I see Mr. Cassidy that you are already contemplating your victory. Just remember, I want Chris Larabee alive. I want to see his face when the bodies of his friends are thrown in front of him."

"Yes Ma-am."

+ + + + + + +

A gunshot brought Vin back from the edge of sleep. Or was he dead? Finally put out of his misery. Then his eyes focused on the dead rat lying beside him.


Vin cringed away from the voice; her voice. He glanced nervously up at her as she passed the gun back to Cassidy.

"I hate vermin, don't you Mr. Tanner? "

Vin frowned, something was different. Her face was uncovered.

"You know who I am?" She knelt down next to him, ignoring the smells that assailed her.

Vin's eyes went back to the dead rat. Now he had no-one and he felt a great sadness at the loss of the poor creature. It was only trying to survive, just like him. He was brought out of his mourning when Cassidy bent down and caught hold of his dirty matted hair, yanking his head backwards.

"The lady is talking to you, boy!"

"I need him to know!" Victoria yelled. "Get him a drink of water."

While Cassidy was gone, she slapped Vin hard across the face, her gloves stained by the spittle and dried food that matted his beard. "I think you're playing the fool, Tanner. " But as she looked into his eyes, she realised he wasn't acting; there was no recognition in his face.

He was burning up with a fever, she could feel the heat coursing off his body. He was so far gone he didn't see her.

"Damn you, Vin Tanner! You brought this upon yourself." She stood up and began pacing in front of him, "Why couldn’t you accept my attentions. I didn't want to hurt you. I was willing to forgive you. Daddy would have understood. Did you see through me Vin, see through my intentions?" She kicked the dirt floor, spraying dust and grit over the inert body, "Well it doesn't matter now. I've won. I've avenged my Daddy. Tomorrow the others will join you in hell!"

Striding purposefully towards the door, she knocked the cup out of Cassidy's hands. "It doesn't matter anymore," she said savagely as she strode back to the buggy.

Cassidy helped her back into the seat. "Want an escort back to town?"

"No." She snatched up the reins, " Just make sure you follow my instructions." She whipped the horse viciously on the rump and the buggy lurched forward.

Cassidy rubbed his chin as he watched her disappear into the distance, wondering if he had a chance with her.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra had spent the day mulling over his next move. He was waiting impatiently for Chris to return so that he could inform him about his suspicions about Victoria Anderson. Settling down at one of the tables outside the hotel, he was surprised when the waiter came out and placed a bottle of brandy and two glasses in front of him.

"A gift," the man explained seeing the question on Ezra's face.

Ezra wondered who his benefactor was, but as there were two glasses, he presumed he'd soon have company.

Right on cue he heard the chink, chink, of Chris' spurs. He poured out two full measures of the brandy, and when Chris turned the corner he called out, “ Salutations, sir."

Chris smiled in exasperation and drew up a chair, taking the offered glass, "Celebratin’?"

Ezra chuckled, assuming Chris was playing along with their plan.

"Yes sir. Ah am toasting a quick return to health for me and mah injured comrades."

"I'll drink to that," Chris whispered, taking the liquid back in one draft.

They were about half way down the bottle when Ezra remembered he needed to speak with Chris, but the moment was lost when Victoria walked out of the hotel and stopped by their table. Almost forgetting his manners, Ezra just managed to tip his hat, unable to stand due to the effects of the brandy. Chris scowled and ignored her greeting. He'd spent the best part of the day trying to avoid her. The ride over to his newly bought homestead had brought him a certain amount of peace.

Victoria, ignoring Chris' scowl, turned to Ezra, "Do you like the brandy, Mr. Standish? It contains one of my late father's tonics."

Ezra looked up slowly, realising he'd been a fool to accept the drink without questioning its source. He was supposed to be on guard against subtle attacks from Vin's captors, whom he now considered Victoria to be, and he'd walked right into a trap.

Victoria ran a gloved hand around his jaw and smiled coldly into his eyes, whispering menacingly, "It affects every man differently. How I'd like to be here to see how it mutates in you, but unfortunately there is someone else I have to be with.”

She leaned down and kissed him full on the lips, a kiss he did not respond to, though he would never know if that was by choice or by a spreading paralysis.

Finished with Ezra, she turned to Chris. The gambler could only watch in mute horror as she slipped a small knife from her sleeve and carefully cut open Chris' shirt, then slipped the knife into the soft flesh under his ribs and slowly twisted the blade.

Chris groaned thickly; it was a shallow wound, but painful. Blood oozed from the cut and Ezra thought he saw Victoria run her fingertips over the cut before placing them to her lips.

The blood letting seemed to revive Chris; he pushed her away and leaped to his feet, staggering across the street to the stables. Victoria laughed; once again she'd defeated Chris Larabee. Ignoring Ezra as he slumped over the table, she flounced back into the hotel.

+ + + + + + +

Chris didn't know why he was running but he knew he had to make tracks quickly. Throwing the saddle back onto his horse, he mounted inside the stable and slipped out the back way, jumping the corral fence to escape.

He pushed the animal into a gallop, despite the darkness and was soon under the cover of trees, heading out to Nettie's place. The pain in his head and side were driving him on, the frantic beating of the horse's hooves matching his thumping heart. Changing his mind, he pulled the horse up short and turned off the track, down into a valley and unknown territory.

The potion in the drink was making him irrational and the horse was struggling to discern his confused commands.

The journey through the trees was difficult and Chris was struggling to focus, his vision was blurring and the pain in his side was unbalancing him.

Slowing to a walk, he finally began to wonder why he was in flight. No one was following him, only the demons in his head. Reaching down he touched his side, only vaguely aware of what had happened back in town. He was shocked when his hand touched the wound.

The horse, startled by a coyote howling close by, took off at a gallop before Chris had a time to react. It charged through the trees, narrowly avoiding them, oblivious to the plight of its rider. Chris tried to balance himself by sitting up, but the injury to his side made him double in agony. He tried to correct his seat by leaning over the terrified horse’s neck. No sooner had he done so when he found himself lying on the ground, the wind knocked out of him. The horse carried on down the slope, ignoring its rider’s feeble calls for it to halt.

Cursing, Chris struggled to his feet and stumbled after it, but after a short while the drugged brandy and the knife wound took their toll and he fell to the ground unconscious.

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