Each Deed of Shame

by The Buffalo Gals

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Vin Tanner cast a lonely figure in the flickering campfire. The full moon helped to throw mysterious shadows over the Joshua trees scattered around the rocky mesa.

The Texan had spent many years in similar situations. Riding the lone trail; sleeping under the stars, alone. He was used to it. It didn’t bother him …no sir!

‘Yer a liar Vin Tanner,' he silently chastised himself. Sure, he still enjoyed the occasional trip into the wilderness. Hell, sometimes Four Corners crowded him.

But he was always ready to head home. A nice word, home. Home, and the comfort of having friends to watch out for him.

The tracker stared into the fire. Where were his friends now? Back in town, having a drink in the saloon, ‘cept Nathan and Josiah. Nathan wouldn’t shirk his duty. He was a healer; he’d fight tooth and nail to save Josiah.

Vin couldn’t get Josiah’s bloodied body out of his mind. Why hadn’t he stopped the preacher?

Josiah had to be the catalyst for the shooting. Without his presence, the robbers would have left without hurting anyone. Probably tied up and gagged the witnesses, nothing else. Vin had been sure of that then, he still was now.

He didn’t blame Josiah. The older man had done what came naturally to him; protect his flock. He hadn’t noticed that the gang’s horses were tethered up much further down the street.

Any gang intent on causing violence would have kept the animals near for a quick getaway.

The robbers, just kids, had meant to make their escape without violence or gunfire. Josiah’s good intentions had blocked their path completely, and in their panic they’d shot the preacher. They’d had no choice afterwards but to put up a fight. A hopeless solution against the likes of Larabee and Tanner.

Now Josiah’s life hung by a thread and Vin Tanner had been ostracised.

Vin had never tried to explain his thoughts about that fateful day, though Ezra had once given him the chance.

The look in Chris Larabee’s eyes had told Vin that whatever he said, he’d never be believed or forgiven.

Vin hadn’t wanted to leave town, not until Josiah had recovered …or died. He’d tried to ignore the condemnation given to him in looks and words.

He’d managed to keep a low profile until the day Chris Larabee began an argument in the street; an argument that had spun out of control. More accusations had flown, from both men. Old wounds re-opened; Ella Gaines, Charlotte Richmond and Eli Joe thrown into the fight to see which of the protagonists would bleed the most.

It had all become too much for Vin Tanner when Larabee threw the tracker’s dependency back in his face. The gunslinger declared he could no longer trust Vin Tanner to watch his back.

“I’d die fer you, Chris Larabee.” Vin whispered. “Always thought the feelin’ was mutual.”

A lonely cry of a coyote broke the sombre reverie he found himself in. The creature was making his horse nervous. Vin walked over to the animal and patted its finely muscled neck.

“Don’t worry boy, I won’t let him hurt ya.”

The horse settled as it listened to Vin’s soothing voice. It trusted the quiet man, a trust that didn’t come easy to the flighty creature.

“We’ve been together a long time boy, ain’t meanin’ t’lose ya now.” Vin walked back to the campfire and pulled out his harmonica.

He rarely played a tune on the instrument just a few discordant notes. However the noise relaxed him and his melancholy faded for a short time.

It was his fourth night on the trail, he should be used to the silence, but he wasn’t. He’d grown accustomed to certain voices filling the air.

Josiah’s warm tones as he told stories from the bible and other well known books. The preacher could always manage to draw the others into his stories, even Chris Larabee. It was the only time Buck stopped teasing JD and Ezra stopped complaining.

Nathan, along with Vin listened in awe as it brought back memories of his childhood.

They’d been denied their parents from an early age yet could recall sitting on their Mama’s knees, listening wide eyed to the stories told to them.

Vin knew that sometimes Chris hurt inside as he recalled the other side of the coin, sitting Adam on his lap and filling the boy with outrageous tales.

How Vin wished he could hear the preacher once more giving life to one of his strange and wonderful characters.

Wrapped in misery, Vin stood up, made a final check of the camp, and placed more wood on the fire, then settled down close to it.

He needed to feel the warmth it gave out. It was the only warmth he could depend on from now on.

+ + + + + + +

The small town of Benton was struggling to survive. Most of the population had moved out, some going to Four Corners once they’d heard of the seven men protecting the town.

There was a hardware store, a general store, a large rundown building that proudly called itself the Grand Hotel, and the obligatory saloon.

Chris steered his horse towards the inn.

“Ezra, you and JD see to the horses, Buck, take two rooms at the hotel.”

“We’re sharing?” Ezra asked in horror.

“Won’t hurt fer one night. Check around, ask if anyone’s seen Vin.”

“Guess you’ll be in there.” Buck nodded towards the saloon.

“I’ll set the drinks up.” Chris didn’t wait to see if the other men followed his orders. He unfastened the saddlebags from his horse, slung them over his shoulder and strode into the bar.

His side ached like hell, but it was foolish to show any weakness when treading on unknown territory.

The few patrons at the bar stepped aside to give the sour looking gunslinger room.

Chris ordered four beers then asked the men standing at the bar,

“I’m lookin’ fer a friend of mine, may have passed through here in the last few days.”

He described Vin, without mentioning his name; one of the drinkers could easily be a bounty hunter.

They all shook their heads, except for one man.

“I didn’t see him in town, but there was a young fellah ridin’ an ‘ornery black. He rode out by my place a few days back.”

“Where is your place?”

“Two miles north of town. Trail leads right by it …could be your friend.” The man visibly shrunk when Chris glared at him, then sighed with relief when the glare softened.

“Might be.” Chris answered quietly. “Might be.”

The inside of the hotel wasn’t in much better condition than the outside.

Ezra Standish sighed with dismay when he saw the twin beds.

“The floor looks more appealing.” He grumbled.

“Suit yerself, Ezra.” Larabee pulled off his boots and unfastened his gunbelt, laying it carefully on the bed.

“You aren’t planning to sleep in that are you?”

“Ezra, I’ll say this only once. Keep on whining and I’ll shoot ya.” The gunslinger settled carefully on top of the bed and groaned as his aching muscles protested.

He closed his eyes and wished he could close his ears to the gambler’s complaints.

How he missed Vin Tanner’s easy silence. They could go hours without talking, yet still enjoy each other’s company.

By the time Ezra climbed into his own bed, Chris had developed a headache.

‘Perfect. Goes with all the other aches I’m suffering.’

“Good night Mr. Larabee.” Ezra said loudly.

“Nite Ez …don’t let the bed bugs bite.” Chris chuckled. He blew out the bedside candle and settled down for the night.

The four men left town early next morning with Ezra still complaining!

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“This is foolish!” Nathan chastised Sanchez.

“Then stay here,” Josiah replied evenly.

“Have t’come with ya. Someone’s gotta take care of your sorry ass!”

The two men argued continually as they saddled up.

Josiah had stated himself fit to travel the day after the others left town and nothing or no-one was going to dissuade him from following them.

“We’re not even sure which way they’re travellin’,” Nathan argued his case.

“We’ll start with Miss Nettie, she’ll tell us which direction they were goin’ in.”

“Crazy! The whole bunch of ya!” The healer wondered why he bothered with them. The answer came easily to him; they were his family.

Once Josiah was in the saddle, Nathan pointed a finger at him, “One complaint and I’m bringin’ ya right back!”

Suitably chastised, Josiah trotted his horse out of town.

Nathan followed, certain that he was going to have to catch Josiah once he fell from his horse!

+ + + + + + +

“Isn’t that Limping Jack?” Ezra pointed towards the river.

An elderly man stood at its edge, sifting through the silt, hoping to find a few grains of gold in the water.

“Sure is, maybe he’s seen Vin,” Buck replied cheerfully. Jack was the first person they’d seen since leaving Benton the day before. “What d’ya think Chris, maybe we should mosey on down and parley with him.” The ladies man was hoping they’d make camp with the old miner. The journey was beginning to tell on Larabee as the riding aggravated his wound.

“Be a good spot to make camp,” JD spoke Buck’s thoughts out loud.

“We got another hour of daylight yet,” Chris grumbled.

“One hour will hardly make an indentation on our journey,” Ezra voiced his own opinion on the situation, backing Buck and JD.

Chris grumbled a few profanities as he conceded defeat and turned his horse toward the river.

Limpin’ Jack Fraser groaned as he straightened his back. Pan handling was no way to make a living. Over twenty years before he’d been part of the Californian gold rush, but had spent his small fortune on bad investments, women and whisky. Now in his mid sixties, he followed the rivers, hoping they’d yield enough gold to keep him alive.

As he wiped the sweat from his failing eyes, he saw the four riders coming down the hill towards him.

He recognised them immediately as the men who kept the peace in Four Corners.

“Why howdy boys, ain’t seen y’all in a while.” he grinned toothlessly. “Y’ain’t lookin’ too good there sonny!” he told the ashen face Larabee.

“Mind if we make camp with ya?” Buck asked as he dismounted from the friendly grey gelding.

“Be m’guest, plenty of room.” Jack limped towards the campfire and threw more sticks onto it. “Youngster, you goin’ to look fer more wood. Ain’t got enough here to last the night and there’s a storm whippin’ up.”

“Yes sir,” JD answered affably. He glanced at early evening sky; there was no sign of inclement weather. The sun was a blood red as it settled over the western horizon and there wasn’t the slightest gust of wind. If Vin was with them, he’d soon say if the old man was correct in his weather forecast. JD’s smile disappeared when he thought about the Texan. ‘Hope we find ya soon Vin. We’re all missin’ ya.’

Buck unsaddled his own horse, then took over from Chris. “You go sit by the fire Chris, I’ll see to yer horse.”

Chris began to complain, then smiled a thanks to his old friend. “The fire sounds good to me right now.” He wandered over to Jack’s camp and settled down on a rock, rubbing his aching side.

“Yer friend told me it was the preacher who was shot,” Jack said as he poured Chris a mug of coffee.

“Who?!” Chris asked sharply.

“Certain young fellah that stopped by and drank my coffee a couple’days back.”

“Vin?” Chris was aware that Jack knew them all from his frequent trips to town.

“Maybe … nice young fellah …real sad lookin’ …said he’d lost his friends.”

“I want you to tell me everythin’ he said!” Chris snapped angrily.

The elderly man was unfazed by the gunslinger and his reputation. “Sure will, once we’ve had supper. Got any decent vittles? Fed up with eatin’ snake.”

“Buck, you and Ezra go rustle up some supper.”

“The assignments Ah am required to perform!” Ezra groaned as he unsheathed the rifle attached to his saddle.

“Aim t’play some poker later sonny?” Jack liked the southern gambler. He’d noticed that whenever he played in one of Ezra’s poker games he always came away with a few extra dollars in his pockets.

“Ah’m sure that can be arranged,” Ezra replied before following Buck in search of supper.

“Don’t see no one fer weeks then suddenly got me a passel of visitors!”

Chris was in no mood for idle chit chat. He wandered over to the river’s edge and gazed across it.

His instincts had served him well. Vin was close; he could sense it.

“Best supper I ever had!” Limpin’ Jack enthused, filling his mouth with more potatoes. Ezra and Buck had shot a couple of rabbits, and JD had cooked up a fine meal for the five of them. “Glad y’came along.”

“Did Vin take supper with you?”

“No Mr. Larabee, he didn’t.”

The meal continued in tense silence. Chris was aching to ask Jack more questions but the old man was determined to make him wait.

Ezra grumbled again when he and JD were designated to wash the dishes. He wanted to play a friendly game of cards with Jack. He liked the old miner and always made sure Jack left the poker game a winner; though he’d never admit it, especially to his mother!

When everyone was settled around the campfire, Jack told them of his meeting with Vin Tanner.

+ + + + + + +

Jack poured out a mug of weak coffee. He was running short of rations and would soon have to journey back to town. Benton and Eagle Bend were nearer but Jack always felt the most comfortable in Four Corners.

Jack recognised the rider and horse that walked down the hill towards him. It was the amiable tracker and that contrary animal of his. Jack couldn’t understand why anyone would want to own such a creature.

“Howdy son!” he greeted the sad faced young man. “Plenty of coffee, if’n ya fancy a drink.”

“Thank you Jack.” Vin dismounted and tethered his horse next to the miner’s stubborn mule. His horse wouldn’t get the better of that animal!

“Trackin’ someone?”

Vin shook his head. “No, I’m movin’ on Jack. Ain’t nothin’ in Four Corners for me now.”

“Ya fell out with them other fellahs?” the miner asked in surprise.

“It’s time fer a change of scenery,” Vin replied, edging Jack’s question.

The miner regarded him sceptically. “Don’t have to tell me if’n ya don’t want to,” he huffed.

Vin smiled at him. “Yer like a dog with a bone.” He took the offered coffee, noticing it’s lack of taste, “Got some beans in m’saddlebags.”

“Mighty kind of ya. Now tell me yer problems. I always find that sharin’ the load eases the weight.”

“Ain’t much t’tell. I let Josiah get shot. I argued with m’best friend. I’ve been a fool.”

“Son, I’ve been on my own a long time. It ain’t no fun, no sirree! If I’d got friends like them fellahs I wouldn’t be leavin’.”

“Not even if yer best friend said he didn’t trust ya no more?” Vin hunched into his jacket. “I know where I ain’t wanted.”

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“Didn’t say much more after that. Ate some vittles with me then rode on. Found a small bag of coffee beans and a few dollars stashed in my saddlebags later on that day. Why did ya say ya didn’t trust him? Might as well stuck a knife in his heart.”

“Wasn’t thinkin’ straight, Jack. We both said things …come to my senses now.”

“Bout time too. Now sonny, where’s them cards?” Jack asked Ezra, “We ain’t got much time ‘fore the storm blows in and I aim t’make me some dollars ‘fore then.”

JD scanned the night sky and once more doubted Jack’s judgement about the weather, however the others didn’t and before the game began, they made sure everything was fastened down for the night.

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Limpin’ Jack’s words haunted Vin as he travelled further away from Four Corners.

“If I’d got friends like them fellahs, I wouldn’t be leavin’.”

The Texan also felt more and more guilty at leaving while Josiah was so sick.

He’d run out on the preacher; Josiah wouldn’t have done that to him; he’d have stayed and faced the consequences.

‘Well Vin Tanner, what’s it to be?’

He rode on a while longer, torn between moving on or going back. When he reached the foothills he’d been heading for, Vin pulled his horse to a standstill. He took a drink of water from his canteen and searched the sky for a sign. He needed guidance and trusted nature to advise him. After a while his prayers were answered.

An eagle soared above him with an easy grace. Vin watched as it turned and twisted on the wind, as if deciding which direction to take. Then suddenly it flew towards the east, towards Four Corners.

“Thank you,” Vin whispered as the bird disappeared from view. “Guess we’d best be goin’ back,” he explained to the horse. He wouldn’t get far before dark, but at least his heart felt lighter now that he’d made the right decision.

He loosened the reins, knowing the horse would instinctively follow the trail home. And as he slouched in the saddle, Vin recalled the argument with Chris that had finally forced him to leave Four Corners, a decision he now realised had been wrong.

+ + + + + + +

Vin leaned heavily against the bar, staring unseeing into his gut warmer. He could count on one hand the times he’d drunk here alone before. His heart sank as he thought about his friend Josiah, lying in Nathan’s clinic, spilling his life’s blood into the healer’s carefully applied bandages.

He didn’t dare consider the question on everyone’s lips. ‘If he dies…’

Vin drained his glass and slamming it back on the bar flipped a coin to cover the cost then turned to leave.

The moment’s hesitation told of the rift developing between Vin and Chris. His exit blocked by the gunslinger, Vin found himself balking at the possibility of conflict. Gathering himself, he walked steadily towards the group by the door. He was not afraid of Chris, but neither was he comfortable with the other man’s hostile overtures.

Overly conscious of the eyes that watched his approach Vin averted his gaze to the floor, hoping Larabee would let him pass. He didn’t understand the gunslinger’s outburst after the shooting, and his cruel words had hurt, really hurt. Vin’s heart ached with the knowledge that this man, whom he trusted as a brother, could not find it in his soul to understand his actions, nor allow him to explain.

‘But explain what?’ Vin set his jaw, ‘no’. He would not explain, there was nothing to explain. ‘If Josiah dies…’ The thought was too terrible. Vin shouldered past Larabee and stepped into the night.

He stopped short on the edge of the walkway and shivered. So why did he feel so guilty? He should’ve known, should’ve done something. He shook his head; his right hand clawing at his chest as renewed pain rose to swallow him. ‘It should’ve been me…’

The soft chink-chink of spurs made Vin startle badly. His heart pounded and he was unable to move as the steady footfalls moved closer. A cold dread settled on him and he waited for Chris’ cruel taunts.

Low, silky words in a reconciliatory tone surprised the tracker.

“You ready to tell me why?”

For the fleetest of moments Vin felt relief surge through him, it was quickly replaced by anger. He turned on his heels and squared up to Larabee, unaware of the other men who flanked their leader.

“Ain’t no why!” Vin snapped.

Chris bristled at the tracker’s tone. He pushed him hard in the chest with his forearm, sending him off the step to stand in the dirt below. From his vantage point Chris glared hard at his former friend,

“You sayin’ ya sent Josiah into that bank for no reason?” he spat in accusation.

Vin stared in shock and disbelief at the gunslinger. He could hardly speak, his breath froze in his throat as he digested Larabee’s words.

“No!” the word was more a plea than a response.

“Then you gonna explain what went on in that robbery?” Chris bore down on the smaller man, forcing him to back up as he descended the steps to the street. Behind him the three men stepped up to the edge of the walkway and waited.

Vin could hear his breath rasping between his lips. He was acutely away that Chris was waiting for his answer, but he couldn’t speak. The wind whipped the sand from the street, stinging Vin’s eyes and causing him to blink rapidly. Still he couldn’t verbalise his thoughts, ‘don’t do this to me…’

Chris stepped up to the tracker’s face and snarled,

“Answer me!”

The ferocity in the two words made Vin visibly jump. It also rekindled his anger. Retaliating to Chris’ attack Vin snapped back,

“I don’t have to explain myself to you!”

Chris growled in frustration, he grabbed Vin by the upper arms and shook him violently.

“What the hell’s a matter with you!”

Vin wrenched himself free and stepped back to put distance between them. He fingered the knife tucked into his gunbelt and was immediately appalled. Shaking himself from his thoughts he slowly looked up at the gunslinger, his eyes dark with pain.

“Way ya talkin’ makes me think ya sayin’ I’m the one put that bullet in him…”

“Maybe not by yer own hand Vin,” Chris said in a cold voice.

“Best tell me what ya tryin’ t’say Larabee.”

“I’m sayin’ I don’t know what to believe, with you actin’ this way.”

Vin shook his head and swallowed thickly,

“Ya ain’t listenin’ to what I’m sayin’.”

“No Vin,” Larabee said reasonably, “I don’t believe what yer sayin’. I can’t trust you when yer actin’ like this.”

Vin’s face creased with soul-deep pain.

“How could ya think that Larabee. Who are you to talk about trust.”

Chris grabbed the front of Vin’s coat and dragged him forward.

“I’ll tell you about trust. There’s a man lyin’ hurtin’, maybe dyin’ in Nathan’s clinic, who trusted you to watch his back.”

Vin struggled against Chris’ grip, finally freeing himself after a savage chop to the gunslinger’s arm.

“Ya don’t know what ya talkin’ about Larabee, an’ I warn ya to leave this alone!” He half crouched in a defensive stance, fully expecting the gunslinger to hit out.

Chris resisted the urge to rub his deadened arm, concentrating instead on venting his anger at the tracker.

“You let me down Vin, you let yerself down, yer friends down and you let the townsfolk down. Do y’ think anyone here abouts will ever trust you again?”

Vin lifted his gaze to the three men behind Larabee, is eyes imploring them to intervene. All three hung their heads, sullen faces addressing the curb by their feet. ‘Betrayed by all…’

“Yer wrong,” Vin rasped, his composure shot. He balled his fist into the fabric of his shirt and pulled futilely against the fabric, “So wrong.”

“Am I Vin?” Chris asked cruelly. “You gonna tell me that I should’ve trusted you with Charlotte Richmond on that wagon train?”

Vin flinched at the mention of the woman’s name. Chris was right, Charlotte had been an error of judgement but he was damned if he was going to have past mistakes thrown at him now!

The whole experience with Charlotte had confused him; he’d never had so much attention poured on him before, especially from someone so pretty, and for a short time his head had been turned by the woman’s attention.

Only later had he realised she’d used him, maybe not knowingly, to regain her husband’s affections.

Larabee had voiced his doubts about the tracker’s dedication to their fight against Dickie O’Shea, when Vin and Charlotte had returned, but once the battle was over and they’d returned to town Vin had presumed that Chris was over his doubts; how wrong he’d been.

“Ya got no right…”

“I’ve got every right…” Larabee interrupted viciously.

“Gave ya no reason to doubt me…”

“Didn’t you Vin?” Chris smelled first blood, “Where were you goin’ to take her? Back to town? I doubt it …we’d’ve never seen you again.”

“What about you and Ella?” Vin lashed out verbally without considering the consequences, “We were both used Chris!”

“Least I didn’t run out on you.”

Vin backed away from Chris’ accusation, “I tried to warn ya …I told she was no good, but ya didn’t listen!”

“So you gave up and ran away. A real friend would’ve stayed, tried to make me see reason.”

“Reason! Ya weren’t thinkin’ with ya brain Chris! She’d got ya all tied up…” Vin struggled to get his argument across. He wasn’t used to long speeches and fancy words.

“You ran out! Like you did with the wagon train. You let people down Vin; people who trust you…” The insinuations tumbled out of Larabee’s mouth before he could stop them, “Same with Chanu…”

“What about Chanu?”

Larabee sensed victory, “What happened in the jailhouse with Chanu, did he really escape?”

“He attacked me.” The tracker replied dully. He’d seen and heard doubt in the faces of Buck and Ezra at the time, but Chris had acted as if he believed him; how could Vin be so stupid to think anyone would trust him!

“Seems to me anytime there’s trouble, you run…”

“Shut up!” Vin’s control snapped, he rushed the gunslinger hitting him with his fists.

Chris easily grabbed hold of the smaller man and shook him fiercely,

“You let me down Tanner, don’t ever ask me to trust ya again!”

Vin was shaking with rage, so much so he knew he could not break the gunslinger’s hold. Bitterness poured from him as he vented his own anger.

“Trust goes both way Chris. Remember Eli Joe? Ya only had to wing him!” Vin struggled in Chris’ grasp, “Why did ya kill him? He was the only chance t’clear m’name.”

“He was goin’ to kill you!” Chris pushed Vin away, “I don’t turn my back when a friend needs me.”

Vin stumbled back, stunned more by Chris’ cruel indictment than the physical push, “I’d never…”

Larabee silenced Vin with a solid punch to the jaw. Vin’s head snapped back and his legs folded, he hit the floor in an undignified heap, watched by the three silent men on the steps and the gunslinger.

His vision blurred. He struggled to get up on his elbows and stared up at Chris, his anger washed out. The dark look he received in return chilled him and he was unprepared when Chris kicked dirt into his face.

“Go to hell Tanner, you ain’t welcome round here no more.” With that, the gunslinger strode away.

Vin coughed softly, spitting dust and blood from his mouth. He glanced up at his friends on the steps. The three men turned and melted into the shadows, no-one spoke or offered assistance to him. Unable to catch his breath through anger and angst Vin sat in the dirt for long minutes, abandoned by his friends and ignored by the townsfolk. He knew this was the end for him. He had to leave town.

+ + + + + + +

Bitter tears stung Vin’s eyes as the memory brought unwelcome emotions to the surface.

“Dammit Tanner, yer bawlin’ like a baby!” he chastised himself loudly.

When had he let his defences down and allowed Chris Larabee into his heart?

+ + + + + + +

The men settled down early, with Buck taking first watch. The sandstorm finally struck, so they huddled close to the dwindling fire. It would be a long night and none of them expected any sleep.

+ + + + + + +

Vin Tanner almost fell over the wagon train during the violent sand storm. His head had been tucked down low inside his upturned collar as he’d allowed his horse to make the way home. He’d just considered finding some protection against the storm for the night when his horse picked up its ears and whinnied, a sure sign that there were other equines nearby.

There were about fifteen wagons altogether, circled for the night and Vin could see a large campfire in the centre of the circle. There was some commotion amongst the travellers as they tried to prevent the spread of burning embers blowing towards the highly flammable wagons.

Vin rode into the enclosure, loudly announcing his presence.

“Friend comin’ in. Hold yer fire!” He stepped down from his horse and ignoring the carbines hastily turned on him, he began to damp the fire; this done he grinned up at the faces staring at him.

“Best have a low fire in this wind. Bed it down with rocks.” He pointed towards the wagons, “Don’t want no accidents now.”

One of the younger men threatened him with a rifle. “Who the hell are you?”

An older man pushed the rifle barrel towards the ground. “Quit blaspheming Nathaniel!”

Vin licked his suddenly dry lips; he didn’t like the way theses folk were eyeing him.

“M’name’s Vin Tanner, I come from a town back there.”

The men gathered closer and Vin resisted the urge to back away.

“So what brings you here Vin Tanner?” the older man asked.

Before Vin could reply, Nathaniel cut in, “Look at him Papa, he lives in no town, he’s little more than a savage!”

A frisson of fear leapt through the crowd and suddenly they were upon the newcomer.

“No …wait!” Vin cried, trying to reach for his own weapon.

“He’s got a gun!” someone yelled.

Vin was pushed to the ground, with hands forcing his arms above his head and bodies pinning his legs.

He was disarmed and roughly tied, howling his innocence at every opportunity.

Turned onto his stomach, Vin was unable to free himself of the bodies pinning him down. He struggled in vain as he heard disturbing talk around him.

“Get the women and children into the wagons, and quickly.” someone ordered above Vin’s head.

Through the melee that followed, Vin heard Nathaniel’s voice, “We gonna hang him Papa?”

Vin struggled harder and received a vicious blow to the kidneys for his efforts. He took the blow without a sound but the effort sorely cost him. His consciousness ebbed; the voices reaching his ears were distorted and confused.

“No son, I will not condone killing. But if he is a savage, we will have to restrain him, and stop his people from following him here.”

“So what do you suggest we do?” asked another, older man.

“And who is to feed him?” another voice cried indignantly.

“Enough!” Nathaniel’s father shouted over the men. “We must be prepared to move tonight! His kin found us before, we cannot allow them to do it again.”

“But the storm?”

“It will hide us Gideon.”

Once more there were murmurs, then Gideon, and aged, wiry man, nodded,

“So be it Joshua, but I say to you, the savage is an ill omen indeed. And one we should have recognised before.”

“Your omens are nonsense.” Joshua waved the suggestion away. “This is a new land, we must learn her ways if we are to survive.”

Another of the elders stepped forward. “I do not care for her ways if it means the death of women and children!” Again, the voices rose in excitement over Vin’s prone body.

The speaker struck again. “And you Joshua, are you to condone the death of your wife and daughter at the hands of his kind?” He nudged Vin in the ribs with his boot.

“I say hang him!” one voice cried out about the rest.

“No!” Joshua’s command stilled the frenzy of hatred once more. “We are wasting valuable time!” He pushed the men aside until he reached Vin, and then he pulled the tracker to his feet.

Vin shivered. Despite Joshua’s reasonable voice, his eyes shone with hatred. He did not address Vin, but spoke to his sons.

“Nathaniel, Benjamin, tie the savage to the back of the wagon. Let him walk away his energy. Be very wary of his feet. Remember, he will fight like a demon.”

“You’re wrong!” Vin couldn’t hide the anger in his voice.

Joshua turned and hit Vin across the face with butt of his rifle. The blow centred over his right eye and sent him to his knees.

The two young men hooked Vin under the arms and dragged him back to his feet.

The Texan blinked blood from his line of vision and stared into Joshua’s hate filled face.

“Take him away!” the father snarled to his sons, “Before I change my mind.”

Vin was pushed in the direction of Joshua’s wagon and fastened to the rear board. The blow to his head confused his senses, making him unable to think of escape. He was being covered by a very excited Nathaniel while older brother Benjamin tightened the ropes. He knew the younger brother was itching for a reason to kill him so he remained passive and tried to save his strength.

When Benjamin had finished making the knots tight enough to chaff Vin’s skin he stepped back and watched the savage sink to his knees.

“Shall we shoot him Ben? We could tell papa he tried to escape,” Nathaniel, no more than sixteen or seventeen years old asked, his voice shrill with excitement and blood lust.

Vin squeezed his eyes shut, half expecting to hear the retort of a rifle and the ensuing pain.

Benjamin reached out and took the rifle from his brother.

“No, papa is right, how can we judge this man without knowing who he is.”

“He’s no man!” Nathaniel cried indignantly. “He’s a savage!”

Benjamin hushed his brother before saying, “He talks like a man.”

Both boys looked towards the tracker kneeling in the dirt, his hat gone and his tousled hair lifted by the wind.

“He doesn’t have the skin of those who killed Mama and Kate,” Benjamin spoke solemnly.

Nathaniel shifted restlessly. “The old men say papa was eager to trust that time and eager to make alliances. We should treat all newcomers with suspicion.”

Benjamin ran an arm around his brother’s shoulders; “Our eyes are clouded with grief. Let us not use death as an excuse for our fear.” He turned the boy away and Vin began to lose their words.

“Come, papa will be looking for us to harness the horses.”

Vin gasped out his fear when the boys departed. He banged his forehead against the old wood.

‘Fool,' he berated himself, ‘Why didn’t I see this comin’?’

He was truly lost now. No one would come looking for him; no one cared about him. He would die a lonely, forgotten soul.

Unknown to Vin, six men were riding in search of him; also unknown to the Texan, his horse had escaped the hands trying to catch its flailing reins and was now galloping blindly in the direction of home.

Crossing the unforgiving river was trying enough in daylight, now in darkness and with the wind whipping up a sandstorm, it was madness.

Joshua insisted they travel upstream as far as humanly possible, to lose the savages who would no doubt be following.

Vin struggled along in thigh deep water, his boots leaden weights around his feet. He didn’t know how far they’d travelled up river, only the harshness of it.

‘Madness.’ He despaired over and over. ‘Only desperate men move head first into unknown territory in the black of night.’

He plodded on, squelching along the uneven riverbed, occasionally tripping over unseen boulders.

A commotion up front brought the wagon to a sudden stop, sending Vin crashing into its side.

The horses neighed in alarm and stamped, trying to break free of the water and for an instant Vin thought he would be dragged along behind them.

Benjamin jumped down from the wagon and grabbed the reins, talking quietly to the terrified animals as his father raced past him to see what was happening up front.

Vin listened, afraid they’d stumbled on bandits, or worse! He heard animals thrashing around and a frantic bray of a mule.

Joshua called for assistance; there was a sudden ‘crack!’ then silence.

Vin gasped in panic, desperately trying to quieten his heart enough so he might listen.

The wagons began to move again and he found himself on dry ground once more, though his boots were filled with filthy water.

They travelled a short way through a bed of thicket before Joshua called a halt.

Vin slumped to the ground immediately, his energy spent.

Benjamin and Nathaniel unhitched the horses, but tethered them in harness, ready to move at a moment’s notice.

Joshua came back leading an injured mule. The poor creature had a flesh wound from a broken shaft in its flanks, and broken flesh on both knees.

“Nathaniel, go fetch the poor beast a blanket,” Joshua called, fixing a storm lantern at the back of the wagon so he might tend the animal’s injuries.

Benjamin appeared with a meal of corn, adding a handful of salt before offering it to the mule.

The animal quickly forgot its woes and began to eat.

“Did he fall?” Benjamin asked, kneeling to help tend the mule’s knees.

“Was a folly to go so far in the dark. Yes he fell, and it’s little wonder the wagon wasn’t turned and all drowned,” Joshua stroked the mule’s nose as he spoke. “He’s a sensible fellow, too good a servant to lose.” He shook his head in annoyance. “Now Gideon speaks again of bad omens.”

Benjamin looked across at the shivering creature trying so hard to be invisible. “If he truly were a bad omen, wouldn’t Ma Lucas and her mules be lost?”

Joshua clamped a hand on his son’s shoulder, “Benjamin, you are a good man. Lord knows, you are the only conscience left in this family.”

“That’s not so Papa, we’re still in grieving, there is a time for bitterness.” He helped Nathaniel spread a blanket over the mule’s back. With another glance at Vin, he added, “I fear we may do something in our grieving that we will have cause to regret in the future.”

“I hope he dies!” Nathaniel spat defiantly.

Joshua sighed heavily, weary of heart. “Nathaniel, will you go and see if Ma Lucas needs help fixing her wagon?”

The boy lingered, knowing he was being dismissed. Joshua did not continue until the youngster had gone, then spoke quietly to his remaining son,

“You are soaked through. Tend to yourself, then take the savage inside. Fix him by the neck with the hobbling iron, then find him a change of clothes.”

“Yes Papa.” The younger man was openly relieved.

“Watch him at all times son and call me if he makes the slightest of wrong moves.”

Benjamin already had the hobble in his hands; “I’ll be careful Papa.” He leaned down and placed the iron against the tracker’s neck. Vin flinched, but did not resist. He’d heard Joshua’s words and heeded them well. Right now a dry change of clothes was more than welcome!

The iron was tight and fixed by a screwed bolt. Once Benjamin had fixed it in place he helped Vin to his feet and untied him.

“Be sure to fasten his hands behind him once you are finished,” Joshua warned.

“I know Papa,” Benjamin answered, helping the weakened tracker into the wagon.

Benjamin fixed the hobble to length of rope, then fastened that to a heavy chest that carried all their possessions. He then stripped and re-dressed, his eyes on his prisoner at all time. He need not have worried; Vin sat shivering in a puddle of water on the wagon floor, his wet hair falling over his bowed head.

A hand shaking his shoulder drew Vin back to his ordeal; he startled badly and stared owlishly at the blond haired youth.

“Strip and put on dry clothes,” Benjamin ordered him, his tone agitated. He was not sure how to talk to the savage.

Vin stood up as best he could, and managed a stoop in the low confines of the wagon. Slowly he stripped off his buckskin coat, shirt, gun-belt, boots and pants. He wore nothing else.

Benjamin blushed when Vin caught him staring at his body; explaining guiltily as he passed undergarments to the Texan, “I did not expect a savage to resemble a man so exactly.”

“I am no more, no less than a man,” Vin rasped, his chest heavy with cold. He took the pants Benjamin offered him and pulled them on.

“You call yourself a man, but papa believes your kind are closer to animals.”

“Is that supposed to be an insult?” Vin asked, his voice barely a whisper.

Benjamin considered Vin’s question a he gave him thick woollen socks, which Vin pulled on with some urgency.

Once the tracker was dressed, Benjamin motioned him to sit, then he lifted Vin’s torn wrist, binding it with muslin before fixing the rope around it.

“A man can reason between right or wrong, good and evil …men without scruples may ignore it, but they know it. Papa says savages do not know and cannot reason.”

Vin watched passively as Benjamin wrapped his other wrist and bound it.

“Did I bring aggression into your camp tonight?” he asked, wincing when the young man forced his hands behind him, binding them tightly.

Benjamin whispered low in Vin’s face, “We fell to you before. First one comes, distracts us with easy manners, charms us into following a fool’s errand. When we are away from our camp, his band attacks it. My mama and sister were killed this way. The camp burned.”

He saw pity in Vin’s eyes, an emotion he hadn’t credited his prisoner as possessing, “And what for?” he asked in disgust, “A few pounds of salt and our horses. Both we would have gladly surrendered to save the lives of our kin.” Benjamin sat back on his haunches, his energy spent.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” Vin said sincerely, “I too lost my Ma, to the fever.” he let his gaze slip from the startled face before him and stared at the floorboards. “I’se five years old …just a little fellah.”

Benjamin nodded. “A cruel blow.” He sighed. “You trouble me savage.” He smiled thinly at Vin’s blank expression. “You know regret and loss. That fits poorly with the analogy I have just given.” He raised himself to a crouch and quickly exited the wagon.

Vin fretted at the ropes for a while, desperate to escape. Finally, he drifted off into an exhausted sleep. The wagons didn’t move again during the night.