Soul Searching

by mcat

March 12, 2004

“The man’s wanted in the State of Texas.”

“Good thing this ain’t Texas, now, huh?”

Vin watched the standoff between Chris and the bounty hunter with remorse. He knew it would just be a matter of time before guns were drawn, seconds maybe. While he knew Chris would win the shootout with this man, it wasn’t without risk. And he really couldn’t blame the other man – he had every legal right to try to bring him in, dead or alive. Why should he die when he’s just doing his job?

“Stop it!” Vin shouted, walking toward the two men, his mare’s leg drawn – he wasn’t a fool.

“Two against one,” Chris drawled, raising half a smile and nodding his head.

“Look Mister,” Vin began. “I don’t expect ya to believe me, but I was framed for that murder.” He held up his hand when the man tried to interrupt. “Just hold on a minute. Like I said, I don’t expect ya to believe me about that. But believe me on this: you try to take me outta here, and this man here will kill ya,” he said, pointing to Chris.

“And we’ll gladly assist him,” Josiah added, stepping up to Vin’s right.

“Yup, I can see it now,” Buck spoke up from Chris’s left. “Won’t be a teary eye in the house.”

“Won’t be very pretty, neither,” Nathan said, coming up behind the bounty hunter.

“You think the undertaker’ll have time to bury him?” JD asked. “I think he’s still got those last three Chris got waitin’ out in the wood shed.”

“Is that what that stench is?” Ezra asked, coming to stand next to Vin. “Good Lord, I thought Mrs. Chan had extra loads of Mr. Wilmington’s dirty laundry soaking.”

The bounty hunter quickly looked around him, seeing that his odds had just gone from one or two to one up to seven to one. Not good. He started backing away from the group, his gun still out and aimed at Vin. Just before leaving the saloon, though, he looked directly at Vin.

“You got your friends and protectors here with you this time, Tanner,” he said. “But that won’t always be true. Hope you got eyes in back of your head.”

Vin acknowledged his statement with a nod and the man left the saloon.

“Woo hoo!” JD shouted, moving over to clap Vin on the back. “We sure taught him a lesson, didn’t we, Vin?”

“Yeah, sure, Kid,” Vin replied, quietly. He returned his mare’s leg to its holster and made for the bar.

“I don’t think we’ve seen the last of that one,” Chris said, joining Vin at the bar and nodding to Inez for drinks.

“We’ll just have to keep our eye on him ‘til he gets the message, then,” Buck added. “Why thank you, darlin’,” he said to Inez, giving her a wink as he took his beer.

“Just don’t kill ‘im,” Vin said. “He’s just tryin’ to do his job.”

“But he’s gonna try and kill you, Vin!” JD balked.

“An’ he’s got every right to, JD!” Vin shouted, slamming his beer down onto the bar. “You just don’t get it! I got a price on my head. Right or wrong it’s there. And it’s always gonna be there.”

He stalked away from the group and headed for the saloon entrance. The other six made to go after him, but Chris just raised his hand and waved the others off. He would stick with Vin for now. To protect him and, hopefully, to talk with him, too.

Vin waited for him just inside the doors.

“Didn’t think you’d wait,” Chris said as they headed out onto the boardwalk.

“May not like needin’ y’all, but I ain’t stupid,” Vin replied.

As they began walking down the dusty street, they caught a glimpse of the bounty hunter across the street, near the hotel’s entrance.

“Ever heard of this one? What was his name?” Chris asked.

“Walsh, I think,” Vin replied. “And no, never heard of him before.” Vin sighed. “Maybe it’s time to move on, Cowboy. Hell, Eli Joe found me easy enough, and now this’un. And there’ll be more. Me bein’ part of the law here’s been gettin’ around. It’s workin’ against me.”

“Being part of the seven of us is what’s gonna work for you, Vin,” Chris replied. “Couldn’t ask for a better set of bodyguards.”

Vin stopped walking and turned to face Chris. “That’s just it, Chris. I never asked to begin with. I can’t be relyin’ on you six for the rest of my life. You got your own to live.”

“Ain’t saying that, Vin. Just that, for now, you got us. Unless you’ve got a better idea somewhere?”

Vin shook his head and started walking again. “Been a while since I needed any babysitters, Cowboy.”

“Don’t think of us as babysitters, Vin,” Chris said, putting his arm around Vin’s shoulders. “Think of us as... I don’t know... guardian angels?”

Vin stopped walking and looked at Chris again. “You ain’t nothin’ like no angel, Cowboy!” he exclaimed, poking a finger at Chris’s chest, and quickly ducked his head as Chris took a swipe at him.

+ + + + + + +

Vin lay in bed staring at the ceiling. It had been four days since Walsh had shown up in town looking for him and he was getting tired of his babysitters. Practically every hour of his day had been spent in the company of at least one of his six friends. He looked over at the other bed and listened to Chris’s quiet snores. The only place they hadn’t followed him was into the outhouse, though JD had come real close before meeting up with the point of Vin’s knife.

He let out a sigh and turned over to face the window. He longed to get out of town, to get away from the six for a bit. If only for a day or so. He also knew that wouldn’t happen. Not with Larabee on the job, anyway. Unless...

“Don’t even think it, Vin,” Chris murmured, yawning and stretching as he rose from his bed.

“Think what?”

“Of trying to slip out on your own.” When he saw Vin’s confused look, he continued, “Don’t look so surprised, Vin. How long have we known each other, now? I know how you get. And I don’t blame you, either,” he quickly added.

Vin turned away from the window, now and sat up against the headboard.

“Just want some control back, Chris,” he said. “Been forgettin’ who I am, where I’m supposed to be.”

“Sure you ain’t exactly who and where you’re supposed to be?”

“If that’s so, then I might as well just give myself over to Walsh right now, Chris, ‘cause this ain’t much better, that’s for sure.”


“All I’m askin’ for is a couple of days, Chris. Just some time to get my head on straight – maybe do a bit of soul searchin’.” He looked Chris directly in the eyes then and added, “Please.”

“What about Walsh?”

“What about ‘im? Have Buck get into a bar fight with ‘im or somethin’ and lock ‘im up in the jail for a few days.” When Chris raised a questioning eyebrow at the suggestion, Vin added, “Like you ain’t done nothin’ like that before? I could say somethin’ worse, like have Mary pretend to take a shinin’ to ‘im and invite him over to dinner, though that might send him to Nate’s clinic for a few days...”

Chris was smiling and laughing now.

“We’ll be merciful and just send him to jail,” he finally said when he calmed down. “Give me a bit to set it up, though, okay?”

“Thanks, Chris,” Vin said with a smile.

They extended their hands and arms and shook to their friendship and agreement.

+ + + + + + +

Chris’s plan for Walsh and Buck was all for nothing, as Walsh found a fight on his own with one of the local farmers, Jack Filmore, first. The two had wound up fighting over one of the working girls in the saloon and it was Buck that broke them up.

It wasn’t half an hour after the two were secure in the jail that Chris met up with Vin inside the livery.

“You sure you want to do this, pard’?” Chris asked. “I’ll gladly come along, ride shotgun, so to speak.”

“Thanks, Cowboy. But it ain’t a matter of wantin’ to do this, as much as needin’ to. That goes for the alone part, too, I’m afraid.”

“You know where you’re heading yet?”

“Got an idea.”

“You’re not gonna tell me, are ya?” Chris said, shaking his head.

“Tell you what, Cowboy, if I’m not back in two days, you go on up to that fishin’ hole we found last month. I’ll leave ya a note,” Vin replied cryptically.

Chris smiled and nodded. “Alright then,” he said, clasping forearms with Vin. “Watch your back.”

“Always, Cowboy. Always.”

+ + + + + + +

Vin’s first stop on his journey was to the fishing hole he mentioned to Chris. The two had been riding around the perimeter of Chris’s land when they found a small deer trail and followed it. It led to a small mountain fed stream, one small enough that they’d barely heard it running. Near one side of it, further down from where the deer trail had led them, it had formed a small pool, which, to their delight, had some fish in it.

After taking care of his horse, unsaddling it and leaving it to graze on the grass and reach the water as well, Vin took out his bedroll to lie on. This would be just a short stop, not his final destination. He would stay long enough to sleep for a few hours, knowing from the lack of tracks in the area that he and Chris were the only humans to have come around, and he’d be reasonably safe. He did keep his gun belt on, however.

+ + + + + + +

“I can’t believe after all we went through, you let him just go off on his own!” Buck shouted. “I thought you were gonna go with him, that’s why I agreed to that plan in the first place!”

“Buck, you don’t understand.”

“No, Chris, I don’t understand. And neither do the others.”

“I do,” Josiah spoke up. When he had the others’ attention, he continued, “Man’s gotta exorcise his own demons. Nobody else can do it for him.”

“Demons?” JD questioned.

“His inner turmoils, Mr. Dunne,” Ezra rephrased.

When JD still looked confused, Nathan asked, “You ever just need to be alone for a bit, JD?”

JD nodded, understanding coming to him.

“Regardless, he shouldn’t be out there by himself,” Buck went on. “How many times has he covered our backs. Why shouldn’t we cover his?”

“Because Vin asked us not to. Simple as that,” Chris replied and walked away.

+ + + + + + +

Chris knew he’d regret agreeing with Vin’s wishes. But he was also a man of his word, and would abide by that agreement. Vin was a grown man; he didn’t need the other six to watch him every minute of the day. Lord knew he’d hate having the others watch over him that way. Granted, they all watched each other’s backs every day, but it was more subtle, not the overt way they’d been sticking to Vin while Walsh had been free in town.

And Vin had had that bounty on his head longer than the few months they’d known each other. He’d lasted this long on his own...

+ + + + + + +

Vin left the little fishing hole at dawn and headed west. As promised, he’d left Chris a message there, with the location of his intended destination. He let out a chuckle as he thought of the message - he’d drawn a crude, and lewd, picture of a woman’s naked breasts and tacked it to a tree. Chris would know that he was now heading toward a certain pair of hills, ones that Chris had jokingly told him looked similar to the attributes of a working girl he once knew.

The hills weren’t too far away; maybe a two-hour’s ride from the fishing hole, about four hours from Four Corners, at an easy walking pace. During his journey, Vin thought about his current situation. He realized that while it had changed in the time since he’d come to Four Corners, he couldn’t really say it was for the better. Sure, he’d gotten six good men to watch his back, defend him, befriend him. But he’d also lost the only witness to his framing for murder. He’d gone from being alone, with some hope of clearing his name, to being part of a group, but with no hope for his future. Was one better than the other? That’s why he was out on the trail...

At last he’d reached his destination. Vin dismounted at the base of the left “breast” and took a walk around, leaving his horse to wander a bit on its own to graze. Vin wanted to check out the area, make sure it was safe and had what he’d need as far as food and water sources went.

After a few minutes, he deemed the area satisfactory and headed for his horse. He hadn’t taken two steps toward it when the beast reared back in obvious fear and irritation and ran away. Vin took two more steps that way, intending on trying to catch his horse when he had to stop again, nearly coming knee to fang with the rattlesnake that had spooked the horse. Within a second, his mare’s leg was in his hand and he fired, killing the snake. And by the time he looked up, his horse was out of sight.

“Son of a bitch!” he swore, shoving the gun back into its holster.

Vin sank to the ground in a heap, dropping his head into his hands.


After a minute or so Vin took a deep breath and let it out.

“Fine. Didn’t need the damn horse for another day anyway,” he muttered. “And even if it don’t come back, Larabee’ll be here in another two. Shit.”

After giving himself a few more minutes to feel sorry for himself, Vin decided to make the most of the situation.

“Hell, the only thing I would’ve needed was the blanket, anyway,” he told himself. “Might as well do this while it’s warm.”

He found a more comfortable place to sit down and took off his hat and coat. Then, reaching into his coat pocket, he pulled out a small pouch. He reached into the pouch and pulled out several small round pieces of cactus and popped them into his mouth.

Vin made a face at the bitter taste, but kept on chewing, and wondered where his thoughts would take him. About half an hour later, he wasn’t thinking at all as his stomach began to rebel.

+ + + + + + +

Vin opened his eyes and saw blue. The blue of the sky above him. He turned his head and saw the brown of the sand and the green of the shrubs and trees. He turned his head the other way and saw much of the same. He let out a sigh.

“Goddamn day couldn’t get no worse. Damn peyote didn’t do anything but make me puke,” he muttered to no one in particular.

While it wasn’t an unpleasant experience he’d had, it just wasn’t what he’d hoped for. Needed. He vividly remembered his last vision quest, and similar ones he’d taken using peyote and other plants when he’d lived with the Indians, looking for direction and meaning in his life. They’d always led him to grander things or better understandings of what was going on in his life. The last one had led him to Four Corners and the six men who’d become like brothers to him.

Vin rolled over with a groan and unsteadily made his way onto his hands and knees and then his feet. He lurched to the left, but quickly regained his balance by grabbing onto a low tree branch. After a moment or two, he was able to let go and take a few tentative steps.

“Maybe I just wasn’t thinkin’ good,” he said aloud. “Was worryin’ too much about the damned horse. Yeah. That’s it.”

He knelt down next to the small creek bed and splashed some water onto his face before cupping his hands together to take a drink of the cool water.

“Need a clear head.”

He leaned down and took one more mouthful of the water. Then he stood and looked around. It was mid-afternoon now. Vin knew if he took more of the peyote now, and if it worked as he hoped it would, it would be late evening before he got his desired results. He contemplated making a fire for warmth, but decided against it. He knew his defenses would be down while under the influence of the peyote and didn’t want to attract any visitors.

He also thought about waiting until morning to try again.

“No, I feel it. Now’s the time,” he reasoned.

Determined and in the right frame of mind, Vin sat down and opened the small pouch again. He shook out several of the buds, and then a few more, and rolled them around in his hand. The first few he’d taken would normally have given him the effect he desired, but this time they hadn’t.

He knew the warnings of taking too many at once, but he also knew that the plant’s buds could vary in potency.

“Must not be a very strong plant this time,” he said, and promptly ate the handful.

+ + + + + + +

“You still set on waitin’ the full two days?” Buck asked.

Chris looked up from the small wood figured he’d been carving and met Buck’s gaze.

“I take it you aren’t?” he asked, though he knew the answer.

“Be a whole lot easier if you were along, to show me the way,” Buck countered.

Chris looked around and saw the other four men at various points around town. Nathan was up on the veranda outside his clinic. JD was on the steps to Potter’s mercantile. Josiah was standing in the jail’s doorway. Ezra was leaning on the batwing doors to the saloon. All were looking at he and Buck, waiting for his answer.

Chris sighed before folding up his knife. He turned the small wood carving around in his hands and then placed the eagle into his coat pocket.

“Fine,” he said, standing. He nodded his head and immediately saw movement as the others walked toward him. “We gotta head out to a small fishing hole near my place, first.”

“You heard him, boys,” Buck said to the others. “Let’s bring Vin home.”

+ + + + + + +

Despite the blurriness of his surroundings, he easily read, “Seven Corners - 7 miles,” on the crudely painted wood post. He kneed the horse below him and continued onward toward the town. To the left, seven hills bordered the road he traveled, to the right, seven trees, all as tall as sequoias, gave him shade.

“Seven,” the wind whispered.

A short time later, Vin opened his eyes, and instead of riding between the hills and trees, he was in the desert. Immediately thirsty, he reached for his canteen, only to find none. A lone cactus stood before him, tall and sturdy. He reached for his knife, hoping to cut into the cactus, to gather its juices. His knife was gone, too. In the sky a lone buzzard circled above him, waiting for him to die so it could feed.

“One,” it called to him.

When he reached the town, he was welcomed. Within its confines he found something he hadn’t before: a group of men he eventually called family. They were multi-faceted: full of youthful exuberance, yet willing to accept age-old wisdom; deadly serious about their business, yet taking their pleasures equally so; willing to take a risk for anyone, yet never leaving anything to chance; Where did he fit in? Would he?

“Seven,” the church bells rang.

Back in the desert Vin watched as the blood welled up from his palm and fingertips, the cactus needles having done their job, protecting their owner. He took off his shirt, mindless of the hot sun beating down upon him and wrapped it around his hand, staunching the blood flow.

“One,” the cactus moaned.

The music played lively in the saloon, the seven working girls singing and dancing bawdily around he and his companions. It wasn’t all fun and games in town; the men had been involved in a gunfight earlier in the day, were victorious, and had reason to celebrate. They’d worked together and saved the lives of several townsfolk.

“Seven!” the girls shouted.

Vin lay sweating in the sand, his chest heaving from his exertion. His pants lay in shreds about him, kicking at the big cactus proving just as fruitless in his attempts to get to its moist meat. He watched warily as the large snake slithered through and around the holes in his pants, searching...

“One,” it hissed just before sinking its fangs into Vin’s leg.

+ + + + + + +

“What is it?” JD asked, moving closer to peer over Chris’s shoulder.

“Never you mind, JD,” Buck said quickly, putting his hand over JD’s eyes, but taking a closer look for himself.

“Are those what I think they are?” Josiah asked.

“My, my, my... Mr. Tanner is as skillful in his drawing as he is his prose,” Ezra murmured in appreciation.

“That they are and that he is,” Chris replied.

“And they’re supposed to tell us where he is?” Nathan asked, skeptical.

“What?! What are you talkin’ about?” JD asked, squirming out of Buck’s grip.

“Vin’s note,” Chris told him, and handed him the paper.

JD’s mouth dropped open at the sight of the drawing. “We’re gonna rescue him from a whorehouse?” he blurted out, the only idea coming to mind.

“Don’t think I’d ever need to be rescued from one of them,” Buck said.

“A man could get into a lot of trouble in one of those,” Josiah murmured.

Chris just smiled as he shook his head. “Sorry, boys, but that ain’t where Vin was headed.” When their looks questioned him further, he explained, rather sheepishly, “There’s a pair of hills a ways away from here that I made the mistake of comparing to...” he waved his hand toward the picture, “them.”

“Why, Mr. Larabee!” Ezra exclaimed, the shock in his voice not matching the amusement in his eyes.

“You old dog,” Buck said with a wink.

“Anyone we know?” Josiah asked.

“Enough,” Chris said, heading for his horse. “We’ve got a job to do.”

The other men nodded and headed for their horses, Buck quickly taking the picture from JD’s hands as he did, folding it up and putting it into his coat pocket.

+ + + + + + +

The buzzard, the cactus and the snake all had agreed. He was alone. One. No one would save him. He’d left the others willingly. He’d spurned their offers of help and now he’d hurt them even more by dying. Alone. One.

Chris would come, eventually. He’d left him the “map.” He’d at least get a decent burial. Chris would do that; he wouldn’t take his body to Tuscosa for the money, even though he’d been told to. Right? Or maybe he would. No, that was Walsh. And Eli Jo. And others, like Yates. They’d take the money. They’d kill him. They’d kill the others, too.

Images of the men came to mind. The seven of them riding together, fighting for one another. Vin didn’t want to leave that behind. Didn’t want Chris to come bury him. It was all getting too confusing...

+ + + + + + +

“Will you look at that!” Buck exclaimed, seeing the pair of hills. “Damn, Chris!”

“That picture doesn’t quite do them justice,” Josiah remarked.

“I don’t see anything,” JD put in, confused.

“One must use his imagination, Mr. Dunne. Open your eyes, expand your horizons...”

JD looked at the hills again, turning his head to one side and then the other, finally squinting his eyes before realization hit. “Oh!”

His amusement was short lived though, when Chris pointed out the figure lying on the ground at the base of the left hill.

“Down at the bottom of the left one,” Chris said, pointing, spurring his horse faster.

“What the hell’s he doin’?” Nathan asked, quickly following, along with the others.

“Looks like he’s trying to hide,” Ezra called over.

Chris was the first to dismount, about ten feet from Vin. He saw the wild look in Vin’s eyes, the fear, and couldn’t understand it. He couldn’t understand what had happened. Why Vin was afraid of them, why he was naked.

“Easy, Vin,” he whispered, taking a step closer, motioning the others to stay back. “It’s me, Chris. What’s going on, Cowboy?”

But Vin just moved back further. When it looked to Chris like Vin would jump up and run away, he made the first move and lunged forward, grabbing Vin by the arm. Vin screamed at the touch and tried to get away. Buck and Josiah ran forward to help, each grabbing an arm or leg.

“Vin!” they called, hoping to get some sign of recognition from their friend.

“Vin! Goddammit, Vin, look at me!” Chris couldn’t help but shout, with frustration, not anger, in his voice. But still Vin writhed and squirmed in his grip, Buck and Josiah’s hands on him the only things keeping him down.

“No! No! Not yet!”

“What the hell’s wrong with him, Nathan?” Buck asked, narrowly ducking Vin’s fist before grabbing it and getting a better grip on it.

“Leave me alone!”

“I don’t know,” Nathan replied. “Could be a head injury, maybe. If he’d only calm down and hold still I’d be better able to tell!”


“I’m right here, Vin!” Chris put his hands on either side of Vin’s head, stopping the crazed
back and forth movements. He waited for Vin’s eyes to catch on and stop moving, to meet his gaze. “Vin? Vin?”

“Let me at him, Chris,” Nathan asked, moving in to get a closer look. “You feel any lumps or bumps on his head?”

Chris concentrated and moved his fingers gently around Vin’s scalp. “I don’t feel anything, but he’s moving around so much...”

“Here, let me,” Nathan said and placed his practiced hands on Vin’s head, replacing Chris’s.

“Leave me alone!” Vin shouted, still trying to break free from those that held him.

“JD, Ezra,” Chris called to the two. “You find anything that might help?”

“Just that it’s a cold camp, Chris,” JD replied. “Looks like he’s been here a while, but there’s no fire pit anywhere.”

“It doesn’t appear that anyone else has been here, either, Mr. Larabee,” Ezra added. “I’m also fairly certain that our Mr. Tanner was not in his right mind when he got here.”

“Why do you say that, Ez?” JD asked.

“Look around you, Mr. Dunne,” was all Ezra said.

Chris’s gaze joined JD’s in examining the camp, if one could call it that, in more detail. As JD had said, there was no fire, which, considering the cold weather they’d been having lately, would mean that someone was after Vin and he didn’t want the light or the smoke to give away his position. But everything else contradicted that theory. Hell, even if Vin hadn’t told Chris where to find him, they’d have found him by following a trail a five year old could have followed, he and his horse having walked through mud and soft earth without any trace of trying to hide it. Then there was also the fact that his horse was nowhere to be seen. No saddle or saddlebags were around, so Vin had never even taken care of it before letting it wander off. Then, of course was the fact that his clothing was strewn all over the campsite... Another shout from Vin brought Chris’s attention back to the tracker.


“I ain’t found nothin’ yet, Chris - no bumps, no blood, no bruisin’ - it’s like he’s drunk or somethin’, but I don’t smell no booze on ‘im.”

“Would these, perhaps, be the cause, Mr. Jackson?” Ezra asked, slowly approaching the group, right hand outstretched.

Nathan took a look at what Ezra held and closed his eyes. “Just might be, Ezra,” he said with a sigh.

“Shit,” Chris whispered.

+ + + + + + +

He no longer remembered why he was out on his own, separated from the others. He no longer cared. He just wanted the agony to stop - for them to either let him go, or get it over and done with and kill him. Please!

“Please!” Vin screamed, still struggling against the hands that held him.

+ + + + + + +

“What is that?” JD asked.

“Peyote,” Josiah answered. “A cactus. Indians use it for Spirit Walks, Vision Quests or other such rituals.”

“Spirit Walks?” Buck asked,

“It’s like gettin’ drunk or takin’ too much laudanum,” Nathan spoke up. “Makes you think an’ act different. Indians say it calms ‘em an’ lets ‘em talk to their Spirits, or Gods.”

“But Vin’s acting crazy!” JD exclaimed, gesturing once again at the struggling man being held down. “You sure he didn’t hit his head, Nathan?”

“Can’t be sure of anything, JD,” Nathan replied, returning his attention back to his patient.

“What can we do, Nate?” Chris asked, putting his hands back on Vin’s head, trying to keep him from hurting himself.

“Just gotta wait it out, let it run its course,” Josiah replied first.

Nathan nodded in agreement. “In the meantime, let me try to take another look at ‘im. Make sure I didn’t miss nothin’ in case he did hurt himself. State he’s in... “

“He keeps fightin’ us like he is, he’ll have hand shaped bruises on him pretty soon,” Buck put in.

“I know it, Buck. But it ain’t like we can tie him up,” Nathan replied.

Vin let out a guttural cry, renewing his efforts to break free from the men.

“Take it easy, pard’,” Chris murmured close to Vin’s ear. The tracker stopped his movements for a moment, as if finally recognizing Chris’s voice. “Vin?”

But the moment was lost as Vin pulled his hand free from Josiah’s grasp and lashed out, nearly hitting Chris in the jaw.

“I got it,” Josiah said, grabbing the arm again. “Sorry ‘bout that, Chris,” he apologized.

“JD, can you get a fire goin’? I think we might be here for a while. Buck, Josiah, you two got ‘im now?”

“Yeah, Nate,” Buck replied, adjusting his hold on Vin’s right arm and leg.

“Me too,” Josiah said with a nod.

With the three men holding Vin in place, Nathan reexamined Vin more closely, and then sat back, shaking his head.

“Nate?” Chris called.

“Like I said, he ain’t hurt. Other than some minor scratches and such. It’s just the peyote doin’ this,” he replied. “Let’s get ‘im warmed up, though. Ezra, you got his clothes?”

Ezra dropped the bundle of Vin’s clothing that he’d gathered at Nathan’s side and then assisted in getting Vin clothed, before adding a blanket to help warm him. After a while, though Vin still seemed to fight them, his struggles became weaker. Nathan wasn’t sure if it was just due to fatigue or if the effects of the peyote were wearing off and he was becoming more coherent. Soon, all it took to keep him in one place was Chris’s hand on his arm.

Two hours after the men had found their friend, and the camp was established, Chris made some decisions.

“Ezra, you and Josiah head back to town. JD, Buck, see if you can track Vin’s horse, maybe we can get it back for him,” he ordered.

As if in response to hearing Chris’s voice, Vin stirred. “Chris,” he called. “Why’re ya doin’ this?”

“I could ask you the same, Vin,” Chris replied quietly.

+ + + + + + +

Chris hadn’t received a response from Vin. The young tracker had just closed his eyes and gone back to sleep. It didn’t stop Chris from asking the question again, though. And then find some possible answers.

He thought about how he might feel, knowing there would always be a price on his head, never being able to stay in one place too long, afraid to trust anyone, which probably included women, as well. He wouldn’t do that to family...

Chris looked down at his friend. Or were they more than friends? Had they all become family to Vin? To each other? Chris raked his hand through his hair. He was tired and he didn’t know what to think anymore.

On the one hand, Vin had gone out to do some “soul searching.” Fine. Vin using some peyote in some Indian ritual to do the “soul searching” was another story. Chris knew of Vin’s past association with several Indian tribes, and knew he respected their customs, but he didn’t realize that he’d participated in them. This was Vin’s way, the Indian way, of trying to find some answers and direction in his life.

Chris sighed. There was the other hand, now. Josiah, sharing his knowledge of religious customs, thought that Vin might have eaten too many peyote buds. Chris had to wonder if Vin had done that on purpose, whether to protect them, his family, or in response to whatever answers he’d gotten during the rite.

“I don’t think he did this on purpose, Chris,” Nathan said. He’d been watching Chris war with his emotions. He’d been doing the same. “Not to hurt himself, anyway. If that was his plan, I don’t think we’d be sittin’ here with him; we’d be buryin’ him. Damn fool.”

Chris nodded in response, knowing Nathan was right. But it still just seemed too careless an action for Vin to him. He voiced his opinion.

“Considerin’ the week he had in town with Walsh on his mind and us on his back, I can almost see how he let it happen.”

“Almost?” Chris questioned.

“Not much that Vin don’t control in his life. He’s got to make good choices, or he’s dead.”

Chris found himself nodding again. Then, he suggested, “Why don’t you get some sleep, Nate. I’ll take first watch.”

+ + + + + + +

The night passed uneventfully. Vin slept peacefully, even through the morning and the arrival of Buck, JD and his horse.

“Found him about five miles from here, just grazin’ in a meadow,” Buck said, taking a seat next to Vin. “How’s he doin’?”

“Just sleepin’ it off,” Nathan replied. “Was just about to try an’ wake him up, get some food and water into ‘im.”

“Vin? Hey, Vin?” Chris called gently, nudging Vin’s shoulder. He got a low groan in response. “Come on, pard’, time to wake up.”

“Too early, Cowboy,” Vin mumbled, turning over and huddling down under the blanket.

“Hate to tell you, Vin,” Buck spoke up, peeking under the blanket, “but it’s actually pretty late. For you, anyway. Rise and shine!” he finished, ripping the blanket back.

“Aw hell, Bucklin!” Vin cursed, sitting up to grab the blanket back. “Shit!” he swore, stopping in mid-motion to put his hands to his head and stomach, hoping to stop the painful spinning effects going on in both places.

“Easy, Vin, lay on back down,” Nathan said, putting a hand to Vin’s shoulder to urge him back to a supine position.

“Here,” Chris said, handing Nathan a canteen of water.

Vin gratefully accepted the water Nathan offered and took several gulps. Then he looked around at the four men, and realized that they seemed to be waiting for some sort of answer from him.

“Thanks for bringin’ my horse back,” he finally said. “Guess we best be headin’ back to town.”

Vin made another attempt at rising but was harshly shoved back down to the ground, this time by Chris, who said, “Whoa, there, pard’, I don’t think so. Not without explaining a few things, first.”

“Explain what?”

“Like what kind of a fool you are, messin’ with peyote!” Nathan shouted. “How much of the damn stuff didja take, anyways?!”

“Hell, you were so out of it, you didn’t even know who the hell we were, layin’ out here buck naked...!” Buck put in.

“You coulda been killed out here, Vin!” JD added, joining in.

“Were you trying to kill yourself?” Chris asked a little more quietly, making sure Vin was looking at him as he said it.

Vin had tried to ignore the tone and words coming from Nathan, Buck and JD. They obviously didn’t and wouldn’t understand. But when Chris asked him that question, it was like a knife searing through, making sure he heard it loud and clear. He couldn’t break the blond’s gaze.

“No,” he finally whispered. “Wasn’t tryin’ to kill myself.” He finally looked away, towards the other three. “Don’t expect y’all to understand. I knew what I was doin’, Nate. And yeah, before you lecture me, I knew there was a risk, too. Hell, if all you did was find me buck naked and not knowin’ who’s who, then believe me, this was nothin’.”

“But Vin...” JD began and stopped, not sure what he wanted to say.

“You’re wonderin’ why,” Vin replied. He took a deep breath and ran his fingers through his hair, letting out an audible sigh. “I was lookin’ for answers. Doin’ it the best way I knew how, the Indian way I learned, by usin’ peyote.” Looking at the still confused looks on Buck and JD’s faces, he shook his head and continued, “Just believe me. I asked a question and got an answer.” When the four men continued to look expectantly at him, Vin said, “Like I said, boys, I’d like to head back to town, now.”

Chris looked at Vin with a critical eye before nodding his head. “Fine by me. Let’s ride,” he said, rising from the ground and offering his hand to Vin.

“Thanks, Cowboy,” Vin said, not just for the offered hand, but for his understanding.

“I still don’t understand it all, but I’m glad you’re alright, Vin,” JD said.

“Yeah,” Buck added.

Vin waited for Nathan to say something. The healer shook his head, showing that he still didn’t understand or approve, and moved to saddle his horse.

“All I can say, Vin,” Chris began, “is that next time you feel the need to do a little soul searching like this, you aren’t going out alone.”

“No. Won’t be doin’ much of anythin’ alone for a while, Cowboy,” Vin replied quietly, heading for his horse.

And as the group rode toward Four Corners, the wind shouted, “Seven!”