Each Deed of Shame

by The Buffalo Gals

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+ + + + + + +

With little sleep during the night, the men searching for Vin Tanner ate breakfast just as the sun was rising. The sandstorm had relented a little but not enough to make life much more bearable.

Buck and JD saddled the horses once they’d eaten, while Chris and Ezra packed up their belongings. Larabee was itching to get back on the trail. He knew any tracks made by Vin’s horse would probably be lost due to the storm, but he didn’t want to lose any more time and fall farther behind the Texan.

Suddenly there was an uproar in camp as a terrified horse came crashing across the river towards them. JD and Buck held onto their own animals as the creature came to a halt next to them.

“It’s Vin’s horse!” Buck called out unnecessarily; they all recognised the crazed animal.

JD had grown used to the horse’s awkward temperament during the last year and knew how to catch hold of the flailing reins without being bitten.

“Whoa there boy,” he used Vin’s gentle tone to soothe the creature. “What did you do with Vin, huh?”

“Poor animal, look at the cuts on it’s flanks and legs. It must’ve been travelling fer hours!” Limpin’ Jack said as he walked carefully around the horse.

“D’ya think he threw Vin?” Buck asked the silent Larabee.

Chris shook his head. “This animal is scared …somethin’s happened to Vin …let’s get ridin’!” Chris couldn’t explain his sense of dread to his friends; luckily, he didn’t need to.

“What we goin’ to do with Vin’s horse? He needs tendin’.”

“Leave him here,” Jack told Wilmington. “I can take care of him ‘til your return.”

“Be careful, Jack. This animal is the devil himself. His teeth are lethal. Mah arm is testament to that.” Ezra warned.

“We’ll get along fine. You men go, find yer friend. If ya ain’t back by the time the horse is mended, I’ll take him on back to Four Corners.”

“We’ll be back by then,” Chris replied coldly. “ Mount up, we’re wastin’ time!”

While Jack unsaddled the injured animal he watched the four men cross the river and disappear into the distance.

“Hope your master ain’t dead, horse. Don’t see that Larabee survivin’ if he is.”

+ + + + + + +

Chris and the others battled through the sandstorm, cursing it in silence and wondering if it would ever end. They didn’t have any trail to follow; once again following Chris’ undaunted instincts.

They rode in single file behind Chris’ black gelding. The wind was whipping around them one minute, throwing biting fragments in their faces, then it was pushing hard behind their backs.

They huddled into coats and rode out the storm, their faces protected by bandannas, pushed low into collars.

The horses bore the brunt of it, particularly Chris’. He knew the effort the animal was having to make; he knew the whipping sand would be stinging the creature’s eyes. However, the horse moved steadily forward as dependable and sure footed as ever.

The other horses were at least afforded a little comfort, their heads low as they sheltered behind the animal in front.

A few hours into the journey they discovered wagon tracks. There was more than one vehicle. Chris presumed it was the wagon train he’d heard of. A strange group of religious people who kept themselves to themselves.

Without explanation, Chris began to follow the trail, the rest of the riders accepting his decision without complaint. When the visibilty worsened, they dismounted and searched the trail on foot.

The four men explored the windswept ground until finally the trail disappeared, lost in the swirling sandstorm. The effort seemed wasted and Buck was the first to acknowledge it.

“Hell Chris, ain’t enough dirt left down to know who passed over in it the last month!” He threw down a handful of the dirt and watched the wind carry it away.

Chris rounded on his old friend. “You got any better ideas, let’s hear ‘em!”

Buck used his height to his advantage. “Just sayin’ the truth. Ya don’t even know Vin was ever here at all!”

JD hovered behind Buck’s back, his frightened eyes fixed on Chris’ raged expression. He was afraid Chris would swing at the big man, not because Buck hadn’t tasted the gunslinger’s ire before, but because Chris was far to weak to make the blow.

Ezra, who was crouched low on his haunches, studying what looked to be the burnt embers of a fire, saved them.

“Mr. Wilmington,” he called out, his voice shrill in the biting wind, “ Someone was here, and not long ago!”

They all gathered around his findings. Buck knelt down and touched the embers. “Still warm. We’re lucky it weren’t blown away…”

“It causes me to enquire, why would anyone pack up and move out in the dead of night and in the middle of a storm?” The gambler looked from Buck to Chris, “Unless they had something …or someone to hide?”

Chris hadn’t been able to crouch by the fire but as Ezra stood back up, he squeezed the southerner’s shoulder. “Good work Ezra.”

JD watched with a pang of envy as Ezra fairly glowed in Chris’ praise. “So let’s get after ‘em!” he yelled over the storm, leaping to his feet.

“Any idea where this trail leads?” Buck asked, turning his back to the wind.

“River crossin’,” Chris answered, already back in the saddle.

“If they have taken Vin, they could hide their tracks in the river,” JD reasoned.

“In darkness!” Buck guffawed. “That would be madness.”

JD looked crestfallen.

“Or the actions of desperate men,” Ezra added kindly.

“We don’t know if he’s with them. Maybe they found him and are tendin’ to him,” Chris said dully. He didn’t believe his words anymore than the others did.

There was a sinister reason for Vin being parted from his horse, and the more they thought about it, the more they reasoned his disappearance was due to his meeting with the wagon train.

They made the river crossing and waded through the fast flowing water to the other side.

+ + + + + + +

Vin, normally a light sleeper, slept like the dead. He woke to the sounds of the wagon crossing rough ground; his body swaying with the jolts of the wheels over uneven footing. He sat up suddenly and found himself staring down the barrel of Nathaniel’s rifle.

“I should shoot you savage!” Nathaniel cried, hitting Vin hard across the face with the weapon.

Vin’s head whipped round at the impact and he felt fresh blood on his cheek. He glared hard at the youngster and wished he could give the boy the hiding he deserved.

“Leave him Nat,” Benjamin shouted back from his seat up front of the wagon, “he’s firmly tied. I checked the ropes myself, this morning.”

Nathaniel seemed unconvinced; he pointed the rifle at Vin once more. “He would kill me if he could, I see it in his eyes.” He waved the gun at the Texan.

“Ya need to learn some manners kid,” Vin said in a raspy voice.

Nathaniel backed into the canvas in shock, and Vin found the double barrels pointed into his eyes. He froze; the kid was scared.

“Can’t shoot him for speaking out, Nat.” Benjamin laughed. “Come, sit with me a while. I grow tired of driving the team.”

Nathaniel threw Vin a frightened look then scurried forward, almost forgetting the rifle in his haste.

Vin squinted through the back of the wagon into daylight. The sun was high, almost noon. He groaned, how could he have slept the morning away? How far had they travelled since they’d taken him prisoner? How much further would it be before they decided to hang him!

+ + + + + + +

The four riders stood on the top of the bluff and stared hard down the trail. The wind still bit into their faces but not nearly as fiercely; the storm was dying.

“Must’ve driven in the river fer a while,” Chris concluded, his voice weary. He turned his horse back towards the river, now some miles behind them.

The other men followed, exchanging glances. Buck was elected to speak, “Before we go into that river, we must rest these horses.”

He was cut short by Chris’ angry retort, “I know that!”

Buck held up his hands in surrender. In silence, the four men returned to the water and made camp by the riverbank.

Buck took first watch and JD investigated the river’s edge in search of clues. Chris and Ezra settled down out of the wind, and rested as best they could.

+ + + + + + +

The wagons stopped at sunset, and there was a great deal of shunting done before the wagon Vin was in finally came to a halt. The tracker groaned softly; he was hot with fever and so very thirsty. He’d not been offered food or drink since being taken, now his bladder ached for release.

Benjamin and Nathaniel tethered and fed the horses then entered the wagon to tend to their prisoner.

Benjamin reached down and touched Vin’s brow. “He’s sickening,” he told his brother “help me untie him.”

“He’ll kill us!” Nathaniel complained.

“Papa said we must take him to tend to his ablutions,” Benjamin scolded. “He won’t escape the hobble, Papa fixed the lock this morning.”

The two boys untied Vin and with some tugging, got him to understand what they wanted him to do.

Vin stumbled after Benjamin, occasionally prodded in the back by an over eager Nathaniel with his rifle.

They took him away from the wagons and told him to crouch low in the undergrowth.

At any other time Vin might have laughed at his stupidity; he hadn’t realised the boys wanted him to tend to his toilet. He gladly did as bid, his eyes never leaving the gun that was nervously trained upon him.

His needs attended to, he let Benjamin lead him to the river’s edge; there he washed and drank his fill.

Nathaniel was boasting to the other boys of the savage’s capture, but they were scornful.

“My Papa says any man could have claimed the savage as his own.” One of them cried.

“Yes, and in our care he would find himself hanged.” said another.

“We aim to hang him!” Nathaniel said indignantly. “See if we don’t!”

Vin searched the clearing for Benjamin, but the youngster had disappeared.

A group of older men, armed with clubs approached, their intent obvious.

Vin scanned the water then broke for the far shore. The suddenness of his run pulled Nathaniel from the rock where he held Vin’s rope and the rifle went off, sending shot over Vin’s head.

Yells sounded on the far bank and the men tore after the fleeing tracker.

Vin scrambled up the far bank, gasping and coughing. He knew he could not outrun the men in this state but he had to try. Desperately, he ploughed through the trees, careless off the thorns and brambles that tore into his loaned clothes.

The men were bearing down on him; he could hear their triumphant cries over his wheezing breath. He thought he’d stumbled and fell, but when he tried to stand his leg would not take the weight and he fell back again with a cry of pain.

“Got him!” one of the men yelled. Vin looked down to see a knife stuck in the flesh just above his ankle. Blood oozed slowly from the wound, soaked up by the damp woollen sock; his only footwear.

The men gathered around him and Vin cowered, waiting for the first blow.

A boot connected with his hip and Vin groaned, however the attack didn’t continue.

One of the men stopped the others; a face Vin hadn’t seen before.

“Joshua will be upon us soon.” he said, taking hold of Vin’s rope. “Get up!” He spat at the injured man.

Vin scrambled to his knees then onto his good leg. The man pulled him to his feet while another tugged the knife from his leg, causing Vin to cry out in agony.

“Now strip!” The man ordered.

Vin stared at him, afraid of his intentions. Nathaniel waved the rifle at him and Vin slowly took off his loaned clothing until he stood naked.

The men bound his wrists and dragged him to a nearby tree, fastening his hobble and his wrists to an overhead branch.

Vin’s eyes were wild with fear; he trembled as the men closed in. The first blow to the stomach should have bent him double as would the knee in his goin, but all Vin could do was hang at the end of a rope.

He was punched and kicked repeatedly until he was sure he would die, then as quickly as they had gathered, the men melted away and Vin was left looking down the barrel of Nathaniel’s gun.

Unable to bear it a moment longer, Vin wept bitter tears; when he looked up the kid was gone.

Joshua and Benjamin had heard the gunshot and where quickly on the way to the river. Finding it deserted, they wrongly searched the campsite, calling for their comrades.

Joshua didn’t grasp their whereabouts until the group crossed back over the river.

“What happened?” he called over to them.

“The savage escaped,” one of the men replied.

Benjamin strode into the water. “Where is he? Where’s Nathaniel?!”

“Nathaniel is with us, the savage is back there. Tied and beaten.” The man looked surprised at Benjamin’s anger. “We need to show them we are not feeble!” he explained.

Unable to speak through his anger, Benjamin waded over to the far bank, ignoring the warnings from the returning men.

“Son! Wait!” Joshua called after him, following him into the river.

Benjamin carried on. He passed Nathaniel without a word, and was brought to a halt when the younger boy caught hold of his arm.

Nathaniel looked stunned “He’s crying.” he said shakily. “Didn’t papa tell us savages never wept?”

Benjamin scowled and pulled free of his brother, continuing up the rough hewn track. “He is not a savage!”

Vin swung slightly in the relentless wind, unable to touch the floor. His wrists were bleeding freely and the hobble tightened with each movement. He’d long forgotten the leg wound; his whole body was on fire now and if he could curl up, he would do.

He fancied he’d been left there to die. Somehow his nakedness didn’t matter anymore, he just wanted to be cut down from the tree.

“Where are ya Chris?” he whispered thickly.

Benjamin stopped suddenly, stiff with shock at the sight before him. Their prisoner was in a terrible state, his body black and blue. Benjamin found it impossible to believe his own people were capable of such abuse.

Before he could move, Joshua was with him, his hand firm and steady upon the younger man’s shoulder.

“Come son, let’s see what can be done for him.”

Together they carefully approached Vin. There was no need for caution, the tracker couldn’t even find the energy to kick out at them.

Joshua lifted Vin slightly as Benjamin cut the ropes, then they laid him on the ground, with Vin immediately curling into a ball, careless of his numerous injuries.

“We can’t help him here, son, help me to dress him then we’ll carry him back to the wagon.”

Benjamin nodded; he couldn’t speak, he wept freely for the man left in his care.

Vin struggled against the gentle but firm hands that forced him back into the garments and he cried out when Joshua threw him over his shoulder. Benjamin followed his father dejectedly.

Joshua needed to speak with Vin’s attackers, so after lowering the injured man onto the wagon floor he spoke to his two sons.

“Tether him firmly, then tend to his wounds.” He looked back at the crowd that had gathered to watch their return. “See if Ma Lucas will help you.” With that he was gone, and the boys were left staring at their savage who mumbled and rocked as pain spasmed through his body.

While Benjamin refastened Vin back to the wagon, Nathaniel went to ask for the widow woman’s assistance. She was a short, stout woman of around fifty years of age. Though she often scolded and complained, the boys knew she was a kindly woman with a heart of gold.

“Poor, poor soul,” she muttered, puffing away the exertion of climbing into the wagon.

“Boy!” she called to Nathaniel who was skulking away. “Boil me some water.”

“Yes ma-am.”

“Ben, untie him, he isn’t well enough to be running away.” she ordered the elder brother.

“But Ma …”

“I’ll untie him then, I ain’t afraid of your papa! Go see where Nathaniel is with that water.”

Once she’d untied the ropes that bound him, she quickly unfastened Vin’s shirt and eased it off the tracker’s shoulders.

Vin, his face swollen and cut, his arms and chest badly bruised, whimpered softly as she turned him.

“There my sweet, Ma will make you feel better,” she hushed his garbled words and set about removing the rest of his clothing.

“No!” Vin cried feebly, his groin on fire.

“Steady now.” Ma gentled him, her deft fingers quickly stripping him while he struggled against her.

“Please …no …” he rasped, breaking into a coughing fit that had him doubled in pain.

“There, there,” she soothed, placing a cool damp cloth against his groin before moving to stroke his hair.

Vin cracked open one swollen bloodshot eye and tried to focus. “Are you an angel?” He asked, his voice strangled and distant.

Ma chuckled sadly. “No son, least not yet a while. And you, do you have a name?”

Vin licked his cut lips. “Vin, ma-am, Vin Tanner.”

She blanched, realising it was more than unlikely that a savage would have such a name.

“Well Vin,” she whispered, “Ma here is going to get you fixed up.” She looked up as Benjamin climbed into the wagon with the bucket of steaming water.

“Can you help me Ben?”

“Yes Ma, I’d like to. It’s my fault he was hurt.”

Ma touched the youngster’s arm. “Don’t go blaming yourself. The men-folk have wanted to do this since your Mama and sister were killed.”

“Ma, I don’t think he’s a savage,” Benjamin admitted.

Ma Lucas looked at her charge, her eyes swelling with tears. “Vin’s no savage son. We’re more savage than he’ll ever be.” She mixed a little cold water with the hot and added a sweet smelling potion, before wringing out a cloth in it.

“Here,” she placed the warm cloth in Benjamin’s hands, “Let’s get him cleaned up.”

The boy watched Ma with her own cloth then copied the gentle strokes she made on Vin’s body; careful not to use more pressure than necessary.

He cleaned Vin’s face, chest and arms while Ma tackled the more difficult task of waist to feet.

Vin became quite restless as she worked around the knife wound and the two found it necessary to rest for a while.

The woman moved up to stroke the tracker’s flushed cheek.

“Quiet now Vin, the worst is over.” she mussed his sweat dampened hair.

“He’s hot with fever,” Benjamin whispered.

“Little wonder,” Ma answered, wringing out her washcloth once more. “Poor boy. He spent half of last night in the river.” She motioned for Benjamin to help her roll Vin over so they might finish washing him.

Once they were done, they rolled him onto his back. She covered him with blankets; her heart saddened when Benjamin placed the hobble back around Vin’s neck.

“Papa said we must, for our own safety,” the boy explained.

“Huh! Go wrap me up some hearth stones and bring them quickly.” She shooed the boy away.

Vin gazed up at her, his focus still blurred. She clasped his fingers in her own, “I need to dress your wounds, will you allow it?”

Vin closed his eyes unable to concentrate on the question. He could not place the woman who spoke to him, his mind had wandered and the reason for his pain, lost.

He shivered as she hitched the blanket up to his waist and though he flinched from the touch of her hands in his most intimate place, he did not resist.

Her voice floated to him from time to time, and though the meaning of her words were lost upon him, he recognised the tone and was reassured by it.

“There, there, old ma is going to make you better. Lie still now, that’s right…” And so she went on, spreading a pain numbing salve over his lower body.

He was shivering by the time she turned down the blankets and began the same treatment upon his upper torso, and was unable to suppress a low moan when she passed over the spot where the first blow had landed.

“Hush baby. You’ll heal. Lucky born, you are. Nothing’s broken and ma will make you better …shush.” She tucked the blanket back over his shoulders then started to stroke his face again.

“Where’s that boy with my stones?” she asked in the same soothing tone.

“Here Ma…” Benjamin answered, heaving his sack of hot stones onto the wagon. “Fire was barely warm so I had to wait for a while.” He helped the woman to wrap the stones in rags then place them by Vin’s body.

“He is badly congested, the warm stones and a little of my vapours should ease that.”

“What about his leg, Ma?” Benjamin asked, seeing the open wound in Vin’s lower leg.

“I need to poultice it, and we should wrap his feet, but not until he’s settled.” She reached up to stroke the tracker’s pale face again, drawn by the pain evident in Vin’s half closed eyes.

“You called him Vin,” Benjamin said, watching the woman touch the injured man so gently.

“That’s his name. He told your father that, when he first came into camp.”

“I don’t understand, if papa knew his name, why did he think he was a savage?” Ben asked himself.

Ma Lucas gathered her poultice which she’d been steeping in some warm water. “Put pressure against his knee and calf Benjamin, he may recoil.”

Vin managed the faintest of moans then began coughing again. While the woman quickly bound the poultice in place, Benjamin lifted the tracker’s head and gave him a small drink of water.

The coughing bout took what was left of Vin’s meagre strength and he slipped into an uneasy sleep. Benjamin carefully laid his head back down onto the wagon floor.

“Could you find him a pillow?” Ma asked; she’d moved to Vin’s feet where she was carefully pulling out thorns from his bloodied flesh.

“Yes Ma.” Benjamin searched one of the trunks and came back with an old cushion that he placed under the injured man’s head.

While they finished their tending, Nathaniel appeared at the back of the wagon. “Is he dead, Ma?” There was no prejudice in his voice.

“No he isn’t,” she answered, tucking Vin’s sock clad feet back under the blankets, “But he is very ill.” She passed the bucket back to the boy. “Would you boil me up some fresh water, son? Vin here needs to breathe my vapours.”

“Yes Ma.” Nathaniel replied obediently, running off to do his chores.

Ma smiled indulgently; the boy would come round, he was a good child at heart, scarred by his mother and sister’s death. Her smile saddened and she shifted back to sit by Vin’s side, her hand against his brow.

“Chris?” Vin moaned softly. Half opening his eyes he stared incomprehensibly at the woman. She stroked his hair, calming him.

“Where’s …Chris?” he asked, his voice hoarse.

“Hush child.” Ma soothed. “Ma here will take care of you.”

Vin was utterly confused. “Ma?” He whispered in awe.

She continued to stroke his hair though Vin had already drifted off again.

+ + + + + + +

Chris woke to find the camp guarded by the restless gambler.

Stiff and sore, the gunslinger sat up and growled. “Damn it Ezra, why didn’t ya wake me!” he got to his knees, and then very slowly to his feet.

Ezra hovered, wary of Chris’ wrath.

“Buck has barely slept two hours and I only one more … the horses need rest…”

“Do ya think that matters now!” Chris barked in Ezra’s face, waking both Buck and JD in the process.

Chris pushed past Ezra and headed for his horse. “Rest yer lazy hides damn you! I won’t stop while Vin is away from us.” He winced as he lifted his saddle but let the anger carry him.

Buck passed the gambler, touching his arm as he went; Ezra looked forlorn. Leaving JD and Ezra by the camp, Buck approached the ailing, yet very angry man. He leaned across Chris’ horse’s rump and spoke in a low voice.

“I’m gonna say it, cause I ain’t half the gentleman Ezra is.” He wasn’t intimidated by Chris’ glare. “You’re nigh dead on yer feet, pard. Ain’t gonna be no use in a fight if’n a fight’s comin’.”

“Nothin’ wrong with my gun hand,” Chris growled.

Buck nodded, “Well that’s just dandy then. Let’s just hope ya make it that far …” He saw the hesitation in Chris’ preparations, though the gunslinger didn’t reply. Buck took the cinch from Chris’ fingers and tightened it for him. This gave him chance to speak in confidence with him.

“Y’know, there’s nothin’ we’d all like better than to find Vin. And ya ain’t the only one who worries fer him.”

The long sigh told Buck he’d hit home.

Chris turned to the two men standing back aways. “Well, are ya comin’ or not?”

JD and Ezra rushed back to camp to gather their things. Buck patted Chris’ shoulder and moved off to saddle his own horse.

The crossing held any clues it possessed, close to its bosom. The four men skirted the river bed each side, both up and down stream, searching for signs of horses and wagons passing.

After an hour, Chris’ anger was growing again. “We need t’split up,” he snapped. “Concentrate on the far shore Buck. You and JD go downstream, me’n Ezra will go upstream. Meet back here at sundown.”

The men nodded.

“If you find them, come and get us. Don’t risk yourselves without cover.”

“Same goes fer you too,” Buck warned, and with a tip of his hat. “Let’s ride JD.” he ordered the youth as he kicked his horse into the river.

The two scouting parties could not have been more different in their methods. Buck and JD kept up a steady and occasionally lively banter while Chris and Ezra were silent. Both performed their duties with equal efficiency though neither had the skills or guile of their tracker.

Buck and JD were well down river, Buck walking his horse along the riverbank while JD was in the river, up to his horse’s shoulders. They were discussing Vin’s disappearance.

“I say he was taken,” JD declared loudly, picking at a broken branch on a riverside tree. “See anythin’ up there Buck?”

“Nope.” The scoundrel shook his head, pausing to study the area more closely before resuming his path, “We ain’t got no proof of that yet.” he told the youth. “Maybe the damn horse threw him.”

“Hope he ain’t hurt bad. Buck, d’ya think he’ll want to come back with us? We didn’t do right by him.”

“We won’t rightly know of Vin’s intentions ‘til we find him. Things ain’t been right since Chris got shot.” Buck saddened at the memory, for both Chris and himself. The delightful and unforgettable Hilda had perished the same day.

“Because of Ella?” JD asked naively.

Buck sighed, not because he doubted the boy’s discretion but rather he did not wish to burden his friend with his knowledge.

JD gazed up expectantly at him.

“At that last party, when Chris was done up so perty like…” Buck couldn’t hide the humour of that memory of Chris, dressed in a suit, standing awkwardly on the stairs as is photograph was taken.

“Yeah?” Patience was not JD’s strong point.

“Vin came to him, told him what he’d heard in Red Fork about Ella’s alliance with Handsome Jack.” Buck pulled at his moustache. “Same I suppose as I’d already warned him of Ella’s deceit ‘bout them fancy clothes.”

“And?” Again JD’s curiosity bubbled over.

“Well, Chris was angry at Vin fer doubting her. It was important to him that Vin would be as charmed by Ella as he was,” Buck huffed. “Though I saw none of the love he shared with Sarah in his eyes….”


Relishing his role of story teller, Buck launched into the tragedy.

“Chris warned Vin to back off as he had done to me. Vin told him that if that was the case he could not stay,” he hushed his voice as though the riverbank had ears. “Chris told me Vin called her a wrong ‘un.”

JD’s eyes fairly bulged with shock. “Little wonder Chris didn’t shoot him then!”

“Nar.” Buck shook his head. “Chris has a high opinion of Vin’s judgement, whether he likes it or not.”

“So Vin would’ve left?”

“I’m sure he was already on his way when he heard the shootin’ start.”

“So you think he might not want t’come back with us anyway?”

Buck was considering the question when there was a yelp and a riot of splashing.

“JD!” He ran through the reeds to the water’s edge just in time to see JD’s sodden horse as it heaved itself onto the bank. “JD!” He called in alarm.

The boy surfaced, spluttering and coughing, gripping his hat in one hand.

Buck began to laugh; the boy’s face darkened in rage.

“Ain’t funny.” He yelled, striking out for the bank.

He stood before his laughing companion and sprayed him with water. “Stop it Buck!”

Buck controlled himself, still unable to silence the odd titter. “Lord, what in heaven’s name were you doin’ boy?”

“Riverbed went away from me,” JD spluttered some more. “Ain’t no way a wagon train went further than here,” he took a sharp breath. “Unless they drowned.”

Buck looked down river to a lazy bend. “Let’s take a look at that bend. If’n they all drowned that’s where they’ll be.”

The two men continued gravely to their destination.

Chris and Ezra were both on foot leading their horses. They walked side by side and studied the ground before them.

Occasionally Chris would stop and stand at the river bank and stare into the water.

Ezra just waited, unwilling to break the gunslinger’s concentration. It was during one of these periods that he heard riders approaching from behind.

He ran for cover, hissing Chris’ name, knowing the gunslinger didn’t hear him.

“Josiah comin’ in!” The preacher grinned straight at Ezra despite the gambler’s attempt at concealment.

Ezra stepped out of his hiding place and brushed debris from his coat.

“Mr. Sanchez, Mr. Jackson.” he nodded to the two men. “We did not expect to see you.”

“Couldn’t stop the dang fool from followin’ ya,” Nathan replied as he dismounted. “Where’s Chris?”

“By the river.”

“And Vin?” Josiah asked in hope.

Ezra shook his head. “We found Vin’s horse ….”

“Yeah, we already know that. Stopped off to talk with Limpin’ Jack. He pointed us in the right direction.”

“We’re following a wagon train and taking a long-shot that they found Vin and took him in. However, we have lost their trail in the river.”

“Where’s Buck and JD?” Josiah’s smile had disappeared with the lack of news about Vin Tanner.

“Downstream.” Ezra followed the two men to where Chris’ horse stood quietly grazing.

The gunslinger was nowhere in sight.

“Chris!” Josiah bellowed.

“Keep ya voice down preacher.” Chris’ annoyance floated up to them from the river.

They looked down to see the gunslinger knee deep in the shallows, brandishing a broken shaft.

“How far would ya say this has travelled?” he asked them.

Nathan shrugged. “No real fast current, I’d say between here and the next bend.”

Chris took Nathan’s offered hand and let himself be pulled up the bank, stifling a cry of pain the effort caused.

“So we’re close.”

“I’d say so.” the healer agreed.

“Will one of ya go back for Buck and JD?” Chris asked.

“I’ll go.” Ezra offered.

Chris nodded then turning to the two remaining men he said wearily. “Glad to have ya with us. Didn’t think you’d be able to stay away.” he smiled at the preacher. “Come on, let’s go find where the wagons came out of the river.”

+ + + + + + +

Vin could feel someone carefully lifting his wrists and cradling them, while another unwrapped the bandages there. Still very weary, he lay passive as the broken flesh was cleaned and redressed.

His nurses moved to his injured leg where again the bandages were taken off and the wound cleaned out.

Vin winced as hot pain shot along his leg, but he could not pull free. He wheezed thickly, alerting his company to his state of consciousness.

“See if he can hold some water down Ben,” Ma Lucas whispered as she wrapped a fresh poultice on the wound.

Vin flinched when Benjamin came into view and tried to back towards the wagon’s side. The warm stones stopped him.

“Talk to him,” Ma called, her fingers easing the tension in Vin’s injured leg.

Ben swallowed nervously and held out the canteen. “Ma says you should drink.”

Vin stared hard at both boy and canteen; he tried to speak but his voice was no more than a croak.

Ben took the attempt as a yes and unplugged the vessel, then he carefully lifted Vin’s head from the pillow, and placed the canteen to the injured man’s lips

The tracker drank that greedily he was left coughing and spluttering.

Ma was quickly by his head and together, she and Benjamin lifted Vin into a sitting position.

Vin crumpled against her when she tapped his back.

“Too much baby, you drank too much.” Ma rocked the trembling, wheezing man gently. “Ben, throw my shawl around his shoulders will you.” she tucked the warm woollen garment around her charge and held him against her bosom. “Breathe slow now, let Ma’s vapours ease your chest.”

Unable to move, Vin rested against her ample bosom and was soon fast asleep.

The next time Vin woke, he felt much better. True, his head ached and his body hurt but he was clearer in mind and thankfully re-hydrated; he was also very hungry.

He glanced around the wagon and found himself alone. Very slowly he eased into a sitting position then leaned heavily against the wagon side. He lifted the blankets and looked down at his naked body. His chest, groin and thighs were black and blue.

Vin groaned; how the hell had he gotten himself in such a mess?

Closing his eyes for a moment he rested until he could focus again then searched for his clothes. They were neatly folded, just out of reach.

Vin turned very slowly and studied the knot fastening him to the wagon. With shaking fingers he undid the rope then with a gasp of pain sidled across the wagon for his clothes.

‘Too easy’, his mind kept telling him, but he couldn’t stop himself.

He dragged shirt on first, then forced his aching body onto his pants, leaving the woollen socks on his feet. The pain in his groin was unbearable, but his need to escape was so great.

His fingers shook even harder when he tried to pull on his boots and he almost failed with the right foot. But his anger was growing inside him, anger at his captors’ actions. He grabbed coat, hat and gun belt, lamenting the loss of the mare’s leg.

He glanced out the back of the wagon, it was dusk and the people had gathered for prayers before starting their evening meal. Vin sensed rather than saw the horses, so he eased to the ground and took off in their direction

He wanted so much to escape, needed to at least clear the air with Chris before … ’don’t think it Tanner!’ he scolded himself.

Nearly at the tethered animals, his legs gave way and he slid to his knees.

‘No!’ he cried silently, the horses barely an arms length away.

Someone tugged at his arms and whispered frantically, “Vin, please, you have to get up!”

It was Benjamin; he had a horse saddled and ready to go, with Vin’s mare’s leg sheathed against the saddle. For an instant Vin wondered where his own horse was, then realising there was no time to consider the animal’s welfare, he made some feeble movements and found himself on his feet, swaying drunkenly.

Benjamin placed Vin’s left foot in the stirrup, ignoring the tracker’s hiss of pain, then pushed him into the saddle.

“Quickly…” Benjamin handed the semi-conscious man the reins. “You must leave!”

Vin slumped forward in the saddle and the reins slipped through his fingers and dangled on the ground.

Benjamin looked around; no-one had heard or seen him so far. He took hold of the reins, pulled the stirrup free of Vin’s foot and hopped up behind him. Then he kicked the animal forward, towards a small copse of trees.

+ + + + + + +

It didn’t take long for Ezra to find the two men downstream and soon they were reunited with their friends.

They found Nathan tending to Chris who’d slipped and fell near the river. Josiah stood close by, his own face grey with fatigue.

Buck crouched by Chris’ side and winced in sympathy to the agony written on the gunslinger’s face.

“Told ya before ..” Nathan pointed angrily at Chris then Josiah, “ …too much too soon.”

“Tell Vin!” Chris spat, pulling his shirt back on.

“I will.” Nathan held his ground. “I just hope I ain’t doin’ it over no coffin!”

“Amen to that brother.” Josiah squeezed the healer’s shoulder in an effort to diffuse the situation.

“Tell ya what…” Buck said reasonably “ …why don’t me’n JD go lookin’ fer them wagon tracks.” he silenced Chris’ protest. “You need that side tendin’ to, Josiah’s tuckered out and Ezra lookin’ a mite peaky too.”

He smiled faintly, teasing at his oldest friend. “ ’sides, JD and me ain’t seen a thing so fer. We’d like to find that trail.”

“You’ve got half an hour Buck, then we’re ridin’ after you.” Chris relented wearily.

Wilmington nodded, unable to tuck away the fond smile. He stood up with a groan, then hollered for JD to bring over his horse.

Chris watched grimly as they rode off.

Nathan gathered his bag of potions and shook his head as he looked into Chris’ pale face. He dearly wanted to lecture the man, but bit his tongue. He could see how Vin’s disappearance was tearing up the gunfighter.

‘Hell, it’s tearin’ us all up!’ he thought, glancing over to where Josiah and Ezra lay resting against a large tree.

+ + + + + + +

Benjamin gripped the bull horn of the saddle with one hand, while his other arm, reins in hand, were wrapped around the unconscious man’s waist.

The animal had hardly slowed and its flanks were now wet with sweat. The boy had heard his father calling his name, his voice filled with anguish, as they’d galloped away from the wagons. He would think Vin had taken him hostage; or worse! How long would it be before Ma Lucas told him of his son’s deception; how long before anyone came after them?

The horse turned sharply left and almost threw its riders, then it neighed shrilly; a frantic sound.

Other animals answered, their own cries as nervous as the original. Benjamin braced himself; had he been riding in circles? Was he riding back to his father?

+ + + + + + +

Six men drew their weapons at the approaching horse’s call. Hooves pounded towards them, slowing down to a trot as it broke through the trees. It neighed again at the excited animals tethered close by, then snorted at the approaching figures.

Buck was closest, his gun aimed at the two figures riding the exhausted creature. He crept forward, whispering to the wild-eyed animal, “Whoa boy, easy now.”

Benjamin froze, terrified as six men bore down on him, their guns levelled at him.

Buck took hold of the reins, careful not pull the horse’s mouth as it danced around him. His voice broke with relief when he saw the man, obviously injured, sitting up front. “Vin! …Chris, it’s Vin!”

Benjamin breathed a sigh of relief, “Thank God!”

Guns clicked and focused on his face. Benjamin gave over his charge to the moustachioed man, and surprisingly, a black man. Before he could explain, a black clad man stepped forward and dragged him from his horse, pushed Benjamin down onto the ground and placed a foot between his shoulder blades.

“You gonna explain why Vin’s hurtin’ like he is?” Chris growled.

“Chris …” JD, the only one left with the gunslinger whispered a warning.

“My folk and friends did it to him sir,” Benjamin spluttered.

Chris cocked his gun behind the boy’s ear. “I should make you pay.”

“Chris…don’t!” JD tried again, stepping up to the gunslinger. He knew that look in Chris’ eyes, he’d had chance to see it a time or two. It didn’t bode well for the youth.

Chris stared at JD, seeing his young, frightened face, then he looked at the white haired boy beneath his boot. Probably the same age, he realised.

He stepped back, his body still fired with rage. “Tie him up!” he ordered JD, then he turned and walked over to where Nathan was tending to Vin.

The healer had made a quick assessment of Vin’s injuries, and was both alarmed and dismayed. The tracker was half conscious and able to take water, but he mumbled incessantly.

“Ma …where’s Ma?” Vin rasped feebly.

Nathan closed the shirt over Vin’s injuries and called out for blankets.

“What’s wrong with him?” Buck asked, listening to the wheeze and rattle of Vin’s breathing.

“Congestion of the lungs,” Nathan explained, his voice quiet. “He’s been badly beaten too.” he nodded to Buck. “We need to get him under cover, quickly.”

Wilmington, dependable as ever nodded. “ Come on Ezra, let’s get the horses saddled up.”

The gambler, hovering close to the injured man, didn’t want to leave Vin, but a loud bark of,

“Now!” from Nathan, brought him out of his worried reverie and he followed Buck over to the animals.

Chris joined Nathan and Josiah, crouching next to Vin’s side.

“How is he?”

“Poorly,” Nathan replied. “We need to get him under cover.”

“We passed that old cabin a while back, would that do? We could be there in a couple of hours,” Josiah answered, noticing that Chris’ thoughts were completely fixed on Vin.

Nathan nodded. “Let’s do it. Buck’s saddlin’ up now. He’ll take Vin on his horse.”

Chris, finally tuned into the conversation. “He’ll ride with me …”

“No Chris, he won’t. I ain’t pickin’ ya both up off the ground. Vin’ll be safest with Buck. No arguments.”

Larabee grumbled under his breath, but had to agree that Nathan was correct.

Less than ten minutes later, the men had broken camp and were ready to mount.

Nathan and Ezra helped the lifeless body into Buck’s arms before taking the reins of their own horses.

“What about him?” JD asked, bringing Benjamin to them at gunpoint. “His horse is all used up.”

“He can ride with Josiah,” Chris said off-handedly.

Ezra mounted up then gathered the reins of the exhausted horse. “He brought Vin back to us, we cannot leave the poor creature to fend for himself.”

The others shook their heads; Ezra’s humanity reared up at the most unexpected times.

“Bring him then, but we ain’t slowin’ down for anythin’ or anyone,” Larabee warned.

They were barely three miles from the cabin when the weary horse began to stumble.

Ezra called to the men to stop, walking the panting creature up to them.

“Ah’m afraid he’s expanded enough energy for one day,” he announced to the impatient men.

“That’s too bad Ezra,” Chris said sternly, “because we ain’t got time to waste.” he turned to the youngster. “JD, ride with Ezra. Let’s go!” he barked to the others, spurring them on without a second glance at the men he was leaving behind.

Ezra and JD watched them go then Ezra clicked to the horse until it walked wearily by his own animal’s side. “Well my dear friend,” he addressed the horse, “your journey is nearly over.”

“Ezra …” JD grinned. “…yer talkin’ to a horse!”