Each Deed of Shame

by The Buffalo Gals

Page 1 | Page 2 | Page 3 | Page 4 | Page 5

+ + + + + + +

The ride was hard on the tracker; his body ached with every jolt as Buck’s steed negotiated the steady climb towards the cabin.

Chris allowed for no rest, he was afraid Vin would worsen with each minute they delayed, and when they finally reached the building, he rushed inside to start a fire.

Nathan received a barely conscious man from Buck, and then once Wilmington had dismounted they carried the sick man inside, while Josiah watched over Benjamin outside.

“He’s bleedin’ Nathan!” Buck warned, his hand covered in blood from Vin’s injured leg.

“Ease him down Buck and get my bags, will ya?”

“On my way.” Buck rubbed the sticky mess on his bandanna.

“Chris, how long before we have hot water?” Nathan called urgently, his fingers already unfastening Vin’s shirt, though the tracker pushed him feebly away.

Chris moved to the bed and gently restrained Vin’s hands, dismayed by the pathetic cry.

“Stove’s warmin’. Pan’s put to boil,” he said, then added in anger, “What the hell is that?” He glared at the hobble fixed around Vin’s neck.

“Ain’t sure,” Nathan replied, unmoved by the cruelty, yet nevertheless angry that it should be meted out to his friend.

Each button unfastened revealed a little more of Vin’s torment, and both Nathan and Chris cursed under their breath.

“Ma?” Vin rasped weakly, his eyes weeping unconscious tears.

Chris let go of Vin’s hands and sat by the tracker’s side, stroking the cold, yet sweating brow.

“Vin, ya hear me?” he asked gently.

The tracker blinked slowly then tried hard to focus on the man beside him.

“Ben?” he wheezed, swallowing thickly.

“Vin, it’s Chris.” The gunslinger steadied Vin’s face in his hands and gazed sadly at his confused friend.

“C …Chris?” Vin tried to sit up, his desperately tired arms trembling at the effort.

“No, lie still.” Chris attempted to soothe him. “Yer sick pard.”

Vin wouldn’t settle; he reached up and clung weakly to Chris’ neck until the gunslinger was forced to let him sit up and bury his face against Larabee’s neck.

Nathan stepped back. He wanted to protest at the action; he wanted to lay Vin back down, but he could see the tracker needed comfort, so giving the two men a moment of privacy, he went to check on the stove.

“Chris!” Vin half sobbed, half wheezed. His fingers gripped the back of Larabee’s neck as he clung to his lifeline.

Chris held him as gently as he would hold a child and hushed him. “It’s over pard,” he whispered into the tracker’s damp hair.

Vin buried his face against Chris’ chest and heaved his breath into his lungs, gasping fitfully.

Nathan appeared behind the tracker. “Let’s get ya out of yer things,” he said gently, astounded by Vin’s sudden panic.

“Hey pard….” Chris pushed the long tresses away from Vin’s face, “…it’s alright, Nathan wants to make ya comfortable.”

Vin shivered as he remembered. “No more beatin’,” he asked Chris to promise, unable to control the tremors.

“No more,” Chris answered, his eyes sparking with anger.

Nathan reached up and gently uncoiled one hand from around Chris’ neck, saddened by the fearful shivering.

He slipped the coat and shirt from Vin’s arm then replaced the hand, quickly repeating the process until Vin was back in Chris’ arms, his bruised back exposed to Nathan’s scrutiny.

Chris couldn’t see the damage, all he could see was Nathan’s grimace as he touched the worst of it with his fingertips. Vin flinched and gasped, but didn’t move.

Nathan rummaged in his bag and brought out rubbing oils that he applied to the bruising.

“Someone’s washed him up already,” he explained to Chris. “Bandages on his wrists are new and the bruises are well out.” He moved off the bed. “Do you think he’ll lie down?”

Chris nodded then spoke quietly to his wounded friend, “Gotta lie you down now. Understand?”

Vin mumbled thickly, “Hurts.”

Chris felt his heart tighten; the tracker wasn’t prone to complaining. “I know. Nathan’s gonna fix you up. You ready?”

The Texan nodded and released his grip on the gunslinger. Very slowly, Chris lowered him to the bed, smarting at Vin’s grunt of pain.

While Nathan began inspecting Vin’s chest, Chris moved to pull off the injured man’s boots. He started with the left, seeing the blood that had soaked through the stitching on the right boot.

He warned Nathan and waited until the healer had a hold of Vin’s leg before attempting the removal. Fortunately the boot came free immediately, but the cry Vin gave out brought Josiah scurrying in from outside.

“It’s alright.” Nathan held up a hand to stop the big man. “Just gettin’ his boots off,” he explained.

Josiah’s face was strained, but he nodded, trusting the healer’s word. “Need anythin’?” he asked his voice unsteady.

“Not yet. Could ya keep everyone out fer a while longer?”

The preacher looked at Chris sitting on the bed, stroking Vin’s pained face. “Plenty to do yet,” he said, lumbering towards Buck’s tense figure in the doorway. “Come away brother.” Josiah turned the ladies man away.

Vin lay panting and puffing on the bed, his body tormented by so many wounds. He tried to focus on Chris’ voice, reasoning that Larabee would never lie to him.

His leg had swollen and the bindings around the poultice were tight. Vin moaned low in his throat as these were cut and the poultice removed.

“Puncture wound,” Nathan told Chris. “It’s clean. Needs to stay off it a while though.” He moved to the other side of the bed and started to unfasten Vin’s pants.

The tracker clawed at Chris’ arm. “No more!” he cried, trying to turn away from Nathan’s hands.

Chris bent low to Vin so he would understand. “No one is gonna hurt you Vin, I give you my word.”

Vin’s face crumpled to tears; he hid his eyes behind a shaking hand and sobbed helplessly. At the same time Nathan eased the pants over Vin’s hips.

“Sweet Jesus!” the healer growled.

The tracker’s lower torso down to his thighs was black and blue.

Chris gathered Vin into his arms once more while Nathan covered his beaten form with a blanket.

“I’ll leave ya a while.”

Chris nodded a thanks.

The healer stepped onto the porch to find two very concerned friends and one very frightened boy standing by the steps.

“How is he?” Buck asked, his eyes filled with concern.

“Nothing broken,” Nathan told them, “But he’s taken a bad beatin’ and that leg wound is deep, though it’s clean.”

“Did he talk?” Josiah asked.

“Not much.” Nathan shook his head. “He’s heavily congested, sick like.” He stared harshly at Benjamin.

“You wanna tell us what happened?”

“Easy Nathan,” Josiah said calmly. “Kid’s real scared. Let him settle a while, then we’ll talk to him.”

Nathan’s face hardened. “Ya think he gave Vin the same consideration?”

Josiah gazed at the healer, his eyes infinitely sad. “Ain’t right what they done to him, but let’s not ferget this boy rode out of that place with him.”

“I hear ya, Josiah. Just haven’t the stomach fer it.”

Buck who was looking up the trail, cut the conversation short.

“Now there’s a pretty picture to be sure.” He managed a chuckle despite their grave gathering.

Ezra and JD were leading the three horses slowly forward.

“Hey boys, takin’ a walk?” Buck called to them.

Ezra bristled at the amusement he afforded the ladies man. He grumbled to JD who’d been quite amiable about walking.

“Your friend is sadly lacking in manners JD. Why would he not enquire as to why we are a pied?”

“What?” JD asked, not understanding the phrase.

“On foot,” Ezra translated with ill grace.

JD stared forward, unsure if Ezra had asked him a question or not.

Buck meanwhile had walked out to meet them. He took the reins to the extra horse and fell in with the steady walk.

Before he could taunt them further, Ezra asked bitingly, “Perhaps you could tell us how Mr. Tanner fares?”

The humour left Buck’s face and he stooped to tell the two men closely.

“Nathan says nothin’ broken, but he’s been beaten real bad. And he’s got a wound in his leg.”

“He will be alright?” JD asked.

“In body, yes.” Buck gazed at his young friend. “But he’s real broken inside. Chris is the only one allowed with him right now.”

Ezra shook his head sadly, for once holding his tongue.

“Is it that boy’s doin’?” JD wanted to know.

Buck replied with a negative. “His kin maybe, Josiah said it can’t be the boy or why would he help Vin get away.” Buck turned when the horse stopped. “He been like this a time?”

“Yes,” Ezra grumbled. “It will take a good amount of coaxing to get him moving again.”

Buck felt down the horse’s shoulder and leg, picking up an eagerly offered hoof.

“You call yerself horsemen.” He scowled. “Poor fellah has cast a shoe and picked up a stone. Little wonder he doesn’t want to move.”

He removed the stone and patted the quiet animal. “There you go old thing, old Buck knows what ya wanted.” He clicked the horse forward and grinned to his companions when it moved obediently. “Come on, let’s get the horses settled. Other’s are in the barn.”

Chris had listened to Buck’s greeting to the two late comers as he rocked the tracker, feeling both tension and strength leak out of the younger man.

He was horrified to get his friend back in such a terrible state, so violated and in such a short space of time. He knew he could never forgive himself.

Vin’s sobbing eased then stilled and Chris leaned close to his hidden face.

“Vin, are you with me?”

The tracker nodded against the gunslinger’s chest, and his arms trembled and tightened around Larabee’s waist.

Chris took to stroking Vin’s back as he tried to ease away some of the Texan’s pain.

“What a pair, huh?” he whispered to the tracker his voice warm with fondness.

He rested his chin on the top of Vin’s head. “Lord knows what I’d have done if you’d have gone.”

“Don’t …” The muffled word barely reached Chris’ ears.

“Don’t mean now, Vin,” Larabee said in a hushed tone as he rocked the younger man once more. “Talkin’ about back when we were at Ella’s house.” His voice drifted away as if the very mention of her name robbed him of speech.

Vin glanced up, his eyes puffy and red. He placed his fingers on Chris’ jaw and then his cheek next to the gunfighter’s cheek.

“I’m here.” he whispered, biting back a sob.

Chris cupped the back of Vin’s head, allowing him to rest a little without breaking contact.

“Got to get you restin’, pard. Do you need to go ‘fore Nathan comes back?”

Vin nodded, blushing profusely when Chris leaned back and reached for a wooden basin then passed it to him.

“Just you and me, pard, no need to be shy.” Larabee moved so that Vin was leaning his left side against the gunslinger, then resting his hand on Vin’s hip, he pulled the blanket apart.

Vin positioned the bowl with a shaky hand and closing his eyes relieved himself. Nothing more was said until he’d finished then Chris stopped him from moving the vessel.

“Let me,” he whispered, his lips close to Vin’s forehead. He removed the bowl and placed it on the floor, covering it with a towel in case Nathan wanted to examine it later.

Vin lay panting against Chris’ chest, spent by the meagre effort. Chris covered him again then held him gently. “All right, pard, gonna let you sleep real soon.”

The tracker nestled down in the protective arms almost asleep by the time Nathan returned.

+ + + + + + +

Larabee could hear his friends talking outside; hear the weary voices. They were tired and hungry, but none would impose on the tracker until Nathan or Chris gave them permission.

Vin moaned softly in his sleep when the warm herbs Nathan had prepared were applied to the damaged leg.

Chris spoke gently to him, explaining their every move, and once Nathan was satisfied he’d done his best, the two of them returned Vin back down on the bed.

They tried to take away the blanket from him but the tracker clung to it like a lifeline.

“Let him keep it.” Chris didn’t want to disturb his friend further.

Nathan nodded in agreement and placed the fresh bedding over it.

Then they hung a blanket over a beam by the bed to give their patient a certain amount of privacy.

“I’ll get some coffee goin’,” the exhausted healer said as he moved stiffly towards the fire.

Larabee stretched his own aching body before going outside to his comrades.

The men were sitting on the top step of the porch, empty canteens in their hands.

Larabee felt a pang of guilt; they’d had little sleep the night before and now this day was nearly gone.

He nodded to enquiring faces. “He’s sleepin’.” He saw his forgotten prisoner and his gaze hardened for a moment before Josiah distracted him.

“Can we see him?”

“Nathan says he’s got to be kept quiet, but y’all welcome to come in now.” He glanced at the youth once more. “You can tie him to the hitchin’ rail.”

Josiah’s reasonable voice angered Chris, “He’s thirsty too.”

Larabee bristled. “He can wait,” he snapped.

Buck sighed and gathered his rope. “Come on,” he spoke coldly to the boy. “Let’s see how you like it.”

Terrified, Benjamin held out his hands to Buck, wincing when the ropes were tightened. JD stood by Buck, watching in horrified fascination.

“What we gonna do with him?” he asked.

Wilmington ran the rope around Benjamin’s waist and tied it firmly, then fastened him to the rail. “Don’t know,” he answered. “Maybe we’ll let Vin decide.”

Benjamin shied away from Buck’s imposing figure, terrified by the turn of events.

Too frightened to speak or move, he stood where they left him and waited.

+ + + + + + +

The cabin was filled with the smell of fresh coffee and beans. Buck’s stomach grumbled in response; how long since he’d eaten?

He sat on the floor by the small hearth with JD hunkered down beside him.

“The kid secure?” Chris asked gruffly.

“Sure is,” Buck replied quietly, accepting the mug of coffee the gunslinger handed to him. “What’ll we do with him?”

Chris shook his head. “Ain’t sure.”

“We goin’ after his kin?” JD inquired.

Larabee nodded, his face dark and brooding. “Gonna bring ‘em in.” he glared at Josiah. “Kidnappin’ charge.”

The men all stared in their coffee mugs, knowing the best response was silence.

Nathan appeared from behind the curtain and thanked Chris for the plate of beans and drink.

“He’s all fixed up,” The healer said with some satisfaction. “Them bruises were well tended before. Just needs to keep off that leg ‘til the swellin’s down.”

“It could’ve been worse,” Josiah spoke their thoughts.

“Wonder who tended to him. The kid?” Buck pondered aloud.

“What’s his name?” Nathan asked. “Vin’s been callin’ out to a Ben.”

They all shook their heads, except Ezra. The gambler had fallen asleep leaning against the wall.

Chris kicked his foot, making the gambler wake up with a start. “Drink yer coffee Ezra. Then we’ll find you somewhere to sleep.”

Standish blinked sleepy eyes. “At this moment Ah would welcome the most humble of reposes.” He smiled softly.

“That thing fixed round Vin’s neck was a horse’s hobble,” Nathan said flatly.

Everyone turned to look at him.

“What the hell were they thinkin’, fixin’ him up like that!” Nathan continued, his voice rising in anger.

“Let’s ask the kid!” JD suggested.

“Wait up,” Josiah stood up, effectively dwarfing the excited men. He looked at Nathan, knowing he would be the most reasonable. “That boy wouldn’t have the strength to subdue Vin.”

He glanced at Buck’s angry face, then to JD. “He’s scared, and he brought Vin back.” The preacher looked from Ezra to Chris’ cold glare. “For that fact alone I’m grateful.” He stood his ground and silence fell on the small group until eventually Buck spoke once more.

“It was his kin that did this to Vin.”

“So we should punish him?” Josiah snapped.

Chris held up a hand. “Josiah is right.” He sighed, his eyes dull with fatigue, where only a short while before they’d been filled with anger. “We can’t ask the boy to bear a man’s guilt.” He nodded to Buck and JD. “ Go give him something to eat and drink. We’ll talk to him in a short while.” He ignored Wilmington’s scowl and turned to the exhausted gambler. “Come on Ezra, let’s see if we can find somewhere for you to sleep.”

Chris grinned at Ezra’s disbelieving look; the gambler wasn’t used to such consideration from the moody gunslinger.

“I found this when I was searchin’ through the cabin.” Larabee held up a dirty, slightly torn hammock.

“Delightful!” The southerner grumbled good-naturedly, helping Chris to fix it the beams crossing the room.

Once it was secure, Chris held it steady while Ezra eased onto it. “Get some sleep. Buck and JD’ll take the first two watches, you’ll do the last.”

Ezra settled onto the old canvas and stretched. “Good night sir. Ah hope you and our returned tracker sleep well this night.”

“Night Ez.” Chris’ thoughts were already turning back to Vin. “Josiah, I want you to stay here with Vin while we talk to the boy.”

“I ain’t sure …” Josiah had visions of the youth being hurt.

“Don’t worry Josiah, we only want answers. As long as the boy replies truthfully he won’t be harmed.” Chris walked out of the cabin before the preacher could come up with any more arguments.

+ + + + + + +

The boy cowered against the railing. He’d been offered food and a drink, surprising Buck when he’d turned down coffee, asking for water instead. They’d even allowed him to go and tend to his personal needs. Yet the men facing him, especially the man in black, still terrified him.

“What’s yer name, boy?” Nathan finally asked the youth.

“Benjamin Weiss,” the youth replied shakily.

“You gonna tell us exactly what happened to our friend back there?” Nathan continued with the questioning, aware that Chris and Buck in particular were liable to lash out at the youth if he said the wrong thing.

“Your friend …Vin …came into camp, two nights back, during the sandstorm. Most of the folk were already scared …we’d been attacked by savages once.” Ben’s face saddened as he remembered his mother and sister’s bodies. “ They saw Vin …his hair …clothes …thought he was part of another group sent to hurt us.” The youth didn’t like the blank expression on the gunslinger’s face. “They attacked him …some wanted to …hang him. But Papa said no.”

“So ya chained him up and treated him worse than a wild dog!” Buck snarled at the youth.

“There’s bruisin’ from more than one beatin’, and the wound on his leg.”

“Yes …” Ben lowered his eyes, ashamed by his travelling companions inhumanity.

By the time he’d finished telling his story, the four men listening were sick to their stomachs with disgust.

Chris took one step towards the boy, not sure what his next action would be but was stopped when he heard violent coughing from inside the cabin and realised Vin had woken up.

+ + + + + + +

Vin shied away from the hand that rested gently upon his shoulder.

“Ain’t gonna hurt ya,” A familiar deep voice penetrated his weary mind.

He squinted open his one good eye and stared into the preacher’s smiling face.

“ ‘siah?”

“That’s me…” Sanchez picked up a mug of water from the table. “Drink this.”

Vin nodded but found he didn’t have the energy to raise his head from the pillow.

“Hold on.” Josiah placed his free hand behind Vin’s head and lifted it. “Take it nice and slow.”

“I’m sorry…” Vin’s eyes watered up; he couldn’t believe the tears he kept shedding.

“Why are you sorry?” It disturbed Josiah to see Vin so distressed.

“I …I didn’t mean to leave while you were hurtin’.”

“Vin Tanner, I ain’t mad at ya. I’m mad at m’self fer gettin’ shot and I’m furious with the others fer turnin’ their backs on you.”

“Where’s Chris?” Vin tried to look around the cabin.

“He’s outside, questionin’ the boy.”


“No, the boy who brung you to us.”


“Tied up outside, we didn’t want him disturbin’ ya.”

“He didn’t hurt me Josiah …don’t let Chris hurt him.”

“Easier said than done Vin. He’s all fired up. They hurt ya pretty bad.”

“They were scared…” Vin gulped down his own fears… “Thought I was goin’ to harm them. Said I’se a bad omen.”

Josiah chuckled grimly. “Bad omen? Wait ‘til they meet Chris Larabee.” The preacher caught hold of Vin’s hand. “Vin, yer shakin’.”

“Thought I’se goin’ t’die.” Vin wheezed. “Thought I’se never comin’ back.”

“Well yer back with us now.”

The Texan started to cough; a harsh ruttling sound that emanated deep within his chest. The coughing woke up Ezra; the gambler struggled out of the hammock and hurried over to the two men. “Give him some more water Josiah, I’ll fetch Nathan....”

The commotion brought Chris and Nathan back into the cabin.

Chris waited until Josiah had fed some water to the sick man before taking his place on the edge of the bed.

“What started this off?” He glared at the preacher accusingly.

“We were talkin’. Vin’s afraid you’ll hurt that boy.”

“Let’s get him into a sittin’ position,” Nathan ordered. “I’ll make up a poultice for his chest. We gotta be careful or pneumonia’ll set in.”

With gentle care, Chris eased Vin up from the pillow and held him against his chest.

“Hey pard.” He took the towel Josiah offered him and wiped away the spittle from around Vin’s jaw.


“Sshhh…I’m here, don’t try to talk.” Chris sniffed the air. “Jesus Nate! What’s that your mixin’?”

“Ya don’t want to know. It’ll help with the congestion that’s on Vin’s chest.”

“He’s bad, ain’t he?”

Nathan nodded. He wasn’t sure if Vin was aware of the conversation going on around him and didn’t want the tracker to hear his poor diagnosis.

The younger man began to cough again and he cried out as pain ripped through his chest.

Chris clung to him, slowly rubbing Vin’s back and talking him to him in whispered tones.

“When I find them that done this ….”

“Chris…” Josiah shook his head, “ … not now…”

Larabee scowled at the older man but heeded his words.

Exhausted by coughing and lulled by Chris’ words, Vin finally succumbed to a fretful sleep.

Chris lowered him to the bed, refusing to acknowledge the gnawing pain in his own aching side.

He wanted to stay with his friend; he also wanted revenge.

+ + + + + + +

“What ya brought him in here for?!” Larabee pointed an accusing finger at Benjamin.

“It’s rainin’, it’s cold…” Buck argued the boy’s case; he’d eventually accepted that the youngster had done his best to help Vin and was not allied to the men who’d hurt his friend.

“Ain’t no concern of mine. Tie him up in the barn!” Chris was scared by Nathan’s prognosis of the tracker’s injuries and sickness.

“That makes us as bad as the folk that hurt Vin.”

Buck’s words hit home; Chris turned away from the youth. “Keep him away from me and Vin.”

“How …how’s he doin’?” Benjamin dared to ask.

“Fightin’ for his life! Buck, tomorrow we go lookin’ fer that wagon train…”

“No we don’t.” Nathan stepped into the conversation. “You and Josiah’ll stay here and take care of Vin. The rest of us’ll go searchin’.”

“Nathan…” Chris warned.

“Chris, my main concern is Vin. He needs you here.”

“Nate’s right, Chris. Vin was worried you’d go and shoot the folk that hurt him,” Josiah explained.

“No! Please don’t hurt my family,” Benjamin begged. “I lost my mama and sister, please don’t take papa and Nathaniel away from me,” he stepped towards Chris only to be hauled back by Buck.

“Sit there and don’t move!” he ordered the youth.

“It may be more prudent to stay here,” the gambler offered his opinion.

“Why do ya say that Ezra?”

The gambler pointed towards Benjamin. “His father will come looking for him.”

“More than one old man did this to Vin. I want them all to pay.” Larabee limped over to the stove and poured a mug of coffee. “You bring them here Buck, all of them!”

Wilmington nodded. “We’ll start out at first light. If Ezra’s right, we should be meetin’ up with them real soon.”

“Best get some sleep, all of you.” Larabee returned to his injured friend. “Get some sleep Nathan, I’ll watch over Vin and the boy.”

“I tied him up good Chris, he shouldn’t be botherin’ ya.”

“I’ll shoot him if he does,” Chris replied mirthlessly as he glared coldly at Benjamin.

The men settled down as best they could in the confines of the old cabin. Chris tried to make himself comfortable in the rickety old chair then reached out and lightly placed a hand on Vin’s shoulder.

“Ain’t never gonna let my insecurity come between us again, pard.”

As if sensing Chris’ presence, Vin turned his head slightly and rested his face against Chris’ hand.

“That’s right Vin, I’m here …watchin’ yer back.”

From across the room Benjamin watched in awe. The black clad gunslinger who only moments ago had threatened to kill him and his family was now acting like a worried father, like his own papa did when he was hurt.

Tears trickled down his face when he thought about his own father; the man would be out of his head with worry by now. Benjamin felt guilt over that, however he’d done the right thing in freeing Vin Tanner.

“What you cryin’ for boy?” Larabee asked the youth quietly.

“Thinkin’ about my papa. Probably thinks I’m dead.” Benjamin bowed his head. “Are you and Vin family?”

“No …we’re more than that,” Chris answered honestly. “I hurt him too. That’s why I’m so angry.”

“I’m real sorry he got hurt …we thought …we were scared, we thought he’d bring other savages.”

“Vin ain’t no savage!”

“Know that now.”

“Get some sleep boy,” Chris ordered the youth, tired of his chatter.

“Yes sir.” Benjamin didn’t think he’d be able to sleep, but it wouldn’t be wise to contradict the gunman.

+ + + + + + +

“I told you he was a bad omen!” Gideon shook a warning finger at Joshua. “Benjamin’s probably dead by now!”

“You’re all talking through your hats!” Ma Lucas snapped at the men standing by their horses. They were going looking for the missing youth and the prisoner.

“Benjamin helped Vin escape. He’s no more savage than any of us!”

“You said that yesterday, so why hasn’t my son returned?!”

“Vin was very sick, he couldn’t travel alone. Your boy’s probably taken him to the nearest town.”

“I blame you for this Ma Lucas! You put ideas into Benjamin’s head!” Joshua mounted his horse and the others followed suit. “Gideon, you and Nathaniel keep the wagons moving. We’ll be …”

“I’m coming with you Papa!” Nathaniel was furious with himself; he’d allowed Benjamin’s soft sentiments to enter his head and looked more kindly towards the savage. Now his brother was more than likely dead!

Joshua opened his mouth to argue with his younger son then closed it when he saw the determination on the youngster’s face. “You do as I say, Nathaniel. I don’t want to lose you too. Gideon, ask Aaron to drive my wagon please. We’ve wasted a day listening to Ma. Come men, let’s see if we can follow the savage’s trail.”

Ma Lucas returned to her own wagon and hitched up the mules. “You’ve got more sense than they have.” She tried to make light of the situation, but her thoughts dwelt heavily on Vin Tanner.

It wouldn’t matter if Joshua found Benjamin unharmed he would still exact retribution on the young man.

+ + + + + + +

Four determined riders left the old homestead as soon as dawn broke. They would not return until they’d found Vin Tanner’s assailants.

Chris Larabee watched them ride out; half wanting to go with them, the other half realising his place was with Vin.

+ + + + + + +

“Are you really a preacher?” Benjamin whispered his question to Josiah. They spoke in hushed tones while Chris slept.

“Was …I lost my faith, lost my path …” Josiah nodded towards Chris and Vin. “They helped to put me back on the right track.”

“They did …how?” Benjamin found Josiah’s admission hard to believe. The man named Chris was a gunfighter, there could be no doubt about that. And Vin Tanner? He may not be a savage, but he hardly looked like a man to follow a righteous path.

Josiah could see the doubt in the boy’s face. “How long have you been travellin’ son?”

“Long enough to lose my mama and sister. I hate this country! Papa says that life will be better in California.”

“Life can be good, wherever you are. I am truly sorry for your loss. This land is unforgivin’, yet it inspires good people.” Josiah wandered over to the bed and pulled the blanket over Vin’s bare shoulders. “This is a good man. He’s killed, but only to survive. He’s also saved lives, riskin’ his own to do so. The same goes fer Chris. They care.”

Benjamin ached to be free of the bonds that held him and considered asking the preacher to free him. Yet if the man in black found him loose … no, on second thoughts, it would be safer to stay bound.

“The seven of you are a strange mixture,” he commented, hoping to make a friend of the preacher.

“S’pose we are. That’s why we get on so well.” Josiah returned to the fire and placed more logs upon it. There were many draughts blowing through the old cabin.

“He’s your leader …why not you? You’re the oldest and strongest.”

“Probably the wisest too.” Josiah smiled at the youth. “It was Chris who got us together to fight for an Indian village.”

“Indians! Savages! Why help them?”

“Because they asked fer it. There were women and children in danger. Son, you have to see past creed or colour.”

“I have nothing against black men, they are god fearing people. They do not kill indiscriminately!”

“No ..most don’t. Neither do most white folk, and if the Indians were left in peace, neither would they.”

Benjamin shook his head in disbelief. “A true, God fearing preacher wouldn’t say those words!”

“Well this one does,” Chris said from his uncomfortable position in the chair. “Boy, shut up. How’s Vin doin’ Josiah?”

“Sleepin’ at the moment Chris. Laudanum’s doin’ its job.”

“Good …” Chris settled back down, but not before giving Benjamin an icy glare.

+ + + + + + +

“We cannot force the whole wagon train to return with us.”

“Don’t aim to Ezra. Just them responsible fer hurtin’ Vin,” Buck explained to the gambler as the four men rode back towards the river crossing.

“And are we going to perform the same outrage they exacted on Mr. Tanner?” Ezra continued his argument.

“I’d like to …but no, we take ‘em back to town fer them to face the judge.”

“We cannot incarcerate them without …”

“They hurt Vin!” Buck interjected, “That’s good enough fer me. Should be fer you!”

“It is, ” Standish replied through gritted teeth, “Ah am merely explaining the law.”

“We ain’t found ‘em yet, so why don’t you two give it a rest!” Nathan snapped at them both. "Let’s do this so I can get back t’Vin!”

“Sorry Nate.” Buck mumbled.

“Yes, so am Ah, Nathan.” Ezra nodded to Buck. “Let’s apprehend those miscreants before they take it upon themselves to assault another unfortunate stranger.”

JD sighed with relief; the last thing they wanted was arguments amongst themselves.

+ + + + + + +

Chris Larabee watched in anguish as Vin Tanner fought for every tortured breath. His friend showed no sign of recovery; and no wonder!

The beatings alone should have killed him, and coupled with the infection he stood no chance of survival; yet here he was, refusing to give in; why?

Josiah rested on the floor near to the fire. Like Larabee he wondered at Vin’s strength to survive, however he did know the answer to Vin’s survival instinct.

The younger man wanted to make peace with Larabee and the others; he wouldn’t give in until then.

“Time fer his medicine,” he told the gunslinger.

“I know, I just hate movin’ him about,” Chris replied as he pulled the blankets back.

Vin visibly shuddered when the cool air hit his sweat soaked body. “No …more …” he choked out.

“Sorry son, but it has to be done.” Josiah crooned.

“May I help?”

Chris threw Benjamin a cutting glare, then his features softened when he saw the compassion in the boy’s blue eyes; vivid blue eyes, like Vin’s.

“Very well, keep the hot water comin’. We have to wash Vin ‘fore we put a fresh poultice on his chest.” He walked over to the boy and cut the ropes that bound him.

“Thank you,” Benjamin whispered, very much in awe of the moody gunfighter.

The three men worked in silence and Josiah very much appreciated the boy’s assistance.

Neither he nor Chris were strong enough to man handle Vin without hurting him.

Benjamin used his lithe strength to hold the sick man still while Josiah applied the fresh poultice and Chris tended to Vin’s injured leg.

“You gonna tell us why they did this to Vin?” Chris asked the boy once they’d finished their doctoring.

“Don’t know what came over them.” Benjamin blushed, deeply ashamed of his friends.

Josiah looked saddened. “Fear can turn the most peaceful of men into strangers.”

“There’s no excuse!” Chris answered sharply.

Vin reacted badly to the harshness in Chris’ voice.

“No!” he cried out as he tried to shy away from the harsh tones.

“Vin, I’m sorry …it’s me, Chris …”

“Chris …” Vin settled immediately, a faint smile crossing his bruised face.

“We should rest while Vin’s sleepin’.” Josiah proposed.

Chris regarded Benjamin thoughtfully. “You try to escape if I leave you untied?”

“No sir! You need my help in taking care of Vin.”

Chris nodded, accepting the boy’s honesty. It would be dawn soon; he expected Buck and the others to return by evening. He still hadn’t made a decision about how to deal with the men who’d hurt Vin so badly.

+ + + + + + +

The two groups of riders fell across each other as they passed through a canyon.

Buck warned his friends to be ready when they rode up to the strangers.

“Best be sure these are the men we’re lookin’ for.”

“I think they are. Their apparel is the same as the boy’s.” Ezra had noted they all wore shabby black suits with white shirts, and hats, not dissimilar to JD’s.

Buck nodded in agreement, but as he pulled his horse to a halt, he smiled widely at the other group.

“Howdy strangers.”

“Good day to you sir,” Joshua replied nervously. Wary of all strangers, he sensed danger in the four men blocking their path.

“You ain’t from around these parts.”

“No, our wagon train is travelling to a new life in California.”

“Oh.” Buck kept his voice steady. “Ya seem to be goin’ in the wrong direction.”

The youngest member of the group spoke up. “We’re lookin’ for my brother. That murderin’ savage …”

“Shut up Nathanial!” Joshua snapped at the boy. “My eldest son is missing. I’m afraid for his safety.”

“I bet you are, mister,” JD hissed, ignoring Buck’s warning.

Joshua realised his mistake too late. Before he or any of the other six riders could reach for their weapons Buck and JD had drawn their own guns.

“Mister, if ya want to see your boy again you’d best hand over yer guns,” As Buck spoke, Ezra and Nathan rode between the men, relieving them of their weapons.

Only Nathaniel dared to put up a fight. “You ain’t taking mine!” he said defiantly to Ezra.

“Well son, it is your decision to make, however, Ah am certain your father would not like to find one son at the detriment of losing another.”

“Give him the gun, boy, before he talks ya to death,” Buck said amiably.

“Papa, these men, they’re like that savage.”

Crash! Nathaniel landed in a heap on the ground.

“You call Vin Tanner a savage once more and I’ll stomp on you!” Nathan shook with temper.

“Is my son alive?”

“Yeah. Seems he’s got some decent blood in him, unlike the rest of ya.”

“Aren’t you going to ask about Mr. Tanner’s welfare?”

“He deserved what he got!” One of the other men spoke for the first time. “It was his kind that attacked us!”

“I ain’t got time t’argue with ya. My friend’s hurtin’ and I’d like to get back to him.”

“What are you going to do with us?” Nathaniel asked, once he was back in the saddle.

JD rode up to him, brandishing his gun in the youth’s face. “Same as ya did to Vin!”

“JD, you and Ezra ride at the back. If anyone tries anythin’, shoot ‘em.”


“Sure Nate, you ride on back to Vin. We’ll be with ya before nightfall.”

Satisfied that Buck had everything under control, Nathan spurred his horse into a gallop and was soon out of sight.

“Best get movin’. You boys have a date with the devil!” Buck said with a huge grin. If they thought he was frightening, what would they of Chris Larabee!

+ + + + + + +

Vin finished his lonely drink and slipping a dime to the bartender, turned to leave. He hesitated for just a moment when he saw his exit blocked by five of the peace keepers, only Josiah was absent. Unable to meet his friends’ eyes he walked slowly but deliberately towards the doorway, shouldering past the silent men.

Outside the wind howled down the deserted street. Squinting against the harsh sun, Vin tried to focus on a shadow in the dirt. His eyes blurred and ran, stung by the blowing sand, hindering his attempt to identify the body in the dirt. He stepped to the edge of the walkway to get a clearer look. It was hot, so damned hot. Behind him the five men gathered, their presence a shroud at the tracker’s back.

Realisation hit Vin like a bullet in the heart. He stumbled from the walkway and staggered to the prone body.

“Josiah…” The one word was torn from his throat.

He startled when his arms were grabbed roughly. A kick to the back of his knees sent him to kneel by Josiah’s side. Pain burned in his chest, heat consumed him, he tried to cry out but the sound died in his throat.

He gazed tearfully at his fallen friend, unable to restrain the thick sobs that tore through him. Josiah’s dead eyes stared regretfully back at him, blood oozed from his still chest.

“Josiah, no…” Vin cried weakly, pulling free of the restraining hands. Sweat ran down his face, mingling with his tears. Heat coursed through his bones, he struggled with the hands that tried to still his fight. “Noo…”

Darkness reached out to him, the sand threatened to choke him. Vin fought the hands, flailing like a drowning man.

“Vin!” Chris ran a cool, damp cloth over Vin’s brow, trying hard to stop the tracker from harming himself as he thrashed. “Vin, yer dreamin’!”

On the other side of the bed, Josiah had Vin’s arm fixed to the mattress by sitting on the limb. The preacher was too weak to hold him still; sitting on the arm was his only option.

“Boy’s burnin’ up,” he said unnecessarily.

Chris shot him an irritated look then applied more pressure to Vin’s free arm. Leaning close to the tracker’s face, he tried again.

“Vin! Listen t’ me. You’re dreamin’!” His words were desperate, he needed to reach Vin before the younger man did himself further injury.

He was on his back in the dirt, lying beside the dead preacher. Paralysed, Vin stared up at the five men and beyond. The light was blinding, hot pain burned through his head. A voice reached him through the agony… laced with concern it was oddly out of place…

A spasm wracked the tracker’s body, leaving him trembling and gasping weakly. Chris ran the cloth over Vin’s brow and gently held his face.

“Vin, can you hear me?”

Josiah held Vin’s hand and lightly massaged his forearm. “Come on son…”

Sensation stormed back to Vin’s consciousness. He arched off the bed, crying out pitifully against the agony in his injured leg. Gentle words broke through his ragged breathing and he tried to focus on them. His chest burned with the effort of suppressing the pain but slowly Vin came to. He opened his eyes and tried to identify the face before him.

“Easy Vin…” Chris whispered, thumbing the tears from the tracker’s cheeks.

“Chrsss…” Vin murmured, his eyes rolling up in his head. Cool water was sponged onto his lips and Vin drank the meagre nourishment greedily.

“Steady now.” Josiah warned.

Vin choked thickly, curling around the fire that erupted in his chest. “ ‘siah ..” he whispered, his face creasing into tears. He covered his face with a hand, trying to stifle the unbidden sobs. Reaching down Josiah gathered the trembling form in his arms and held him.

“S’alright son. Let it go.” The preacher’s own eyes were damp with tears.

Chris draped the sweat soaked blanket around Vin’s heaving shoulders then stepped away from the bed. He wanted to give the two men a little time, and he hurt like hell.

Beyond the makeshift partition, Ben was warming water and filling an old tin bath he’d meticulously scrubbed and prepared. Chris scowled darkly at the young man and stepped around the apparatus, his intention to get outside, take a breath of air.

“Vin carries a high fever,” Ben’s voice was calm and clear, he didn’t look up at the gunslinger, “We must break it before his body becomes too weak to fight.”

Chris’ eyes swept over the boy’s preparations, he could see the youngster had been working hard. The tub was already a third filled, Nathan’s towelling was warming by the fire and there was cold water standing by. Chris halted his exit and sat down heavily on the stool by the tub.

“What are you suggestin’?” he asked dully, half listening to Josiah’s soothing voice behind him.

“A cool bath. I’ve seen it done many times.” Ben glanced at the gunslinger’s profile, a frisson of fear lancing his heart as he watched the other man’s face darken. He swallowed thickly and continued, “The tepid water will bring his temperature down. As he cools we warm the water until he is comfortable.”

Chris considered the boy’s words. For sure the tracker was burning up, but Chris was unwilling to trust a mere boy with his friend’s well-being. The gunslinger leaned forward to rest his elbows on his knees then covered his face with his hands.

Ben stilled, unwilling to break the moment of quiet contemplation. He was unable to look away from the man before him. The fear he had so recently felt left him to be replaced by compassion. He had not realised how close to breaking point the gunslinger was.

Eventually Chris sighed raggedly and rose slowly to his feet. “I’ll speak with Josiah,” he said, giving the youngster the faintest of nods.

Quietly Ben resumed his tasks.

Josiah gently rocked his weeping friend, his eyes watching the gunslinger’s slow, defeated retreat with sorrowful eyes. He understood some of the gunslinger’s pain, he would be devastated that Vin had reached to the preacher for comfort. Josiah cupped Vin’s sweat damp head and cradled him against his chest, crooning soft, soothing words over the painful sobs.

Vin listened to the scripture. Though he had no faith, the sound of Josiah’s reassuring voice bore him through the gut churning fear and pain. He clung weakly to the preacher’s shirt and wept out his agony, feeling himself fade with every breath.

Gentle hands supported him, caressed him, urged him to take water. The effort was almost Vin’s undoing. After drawing less than a mouthful of water, he lay gasping against Josiah’s shoulder, resting as the preacher rubbed his damp back.

Chris slipped around the partition and sat down carefully beside the preacher. He reached out and smoothed Vin’s hair from his face, taking in the flushed cheeks in his otherwise colourless face.

“Kid says we need to break this fever,” he whispered to Josiah, his fingers never leaving Vin’s brow.

“He is burning up,” Josiah said in agreement.

Chris nodded then got to his feet. “Would bathing him help?”

Josiah considered the question for a moment. “I’ve seen Nathan do something of the kind. Won’t be easy though, Vin’s in a lot of pain.”

“I know,” Chris whispered. He leant down to stroke Vin’s hair and speak to him.

“Gonna move you Vin, get you cooled down some. It’ll hurt, we’ll be as quick as we can.” He felt the faintest of nods under his fingers and patted his head lightly.

Chris held Vin’s legs and turned him to lay back in Josiah’s arms. Even this slightest of movements drew enough agony from the injured man to still his friends. Chris let the pain pass then carefully lifted with the preacher and very slowly they moved over to the fire. Vin moaned weakly in their grasp, too frail to free himself from the worst of the pain he hung in limbo, waiting for the intense pain to ease.

Ben carefully tested the temperature in the tub then nodded for the men to lower Vin into the tepid water. Vin shivered fitfully in the water, still wrapped in his blanket. He flinched away from the gentle fingers that touched his brow, his senses heightened by the fever.

“Easy now Vin,” Chris told him, steadying the tracker by placing a hand on the back of his head. He carefully dripped water between the sick man’s lips, pausing to stoke his throat and make him swallow.

Ben eased forward and touched Vin’s brow once more, satisfied the tracker’s temperature was indeed coming down. He quickly backed off at the gunslinger’s glare and busied himself warming water with Josiah.

Vin lay in the tub, his arms useless by his sides. His injured leg was raised from the water; cushioned by blankets, it draped over the tub side. He was immersed up to his chest in water and supported by Chris’s gentle strength. Though his temperature was coming down his chest was getting tighter. Right now, with the weight of the water against his fragile flesh Vin felt he would surely drown. Unable to move or communicate his discomfort he lay in Chris’s embrace and tried to focus on the gunslingers administrations.

His consciousness ebbed and flowed, always interspersed with the mind numbing pain. He writhed in the tub, trying to relieve his chest of the immense pressure laying on him. Chris held him throughout, speaking quietly to him and always, carefully feeding him water.

Slowly the temperature in the tub was raised and Vin found himself more comfortable in the water, and his chest pains eased. He found the strength to turn his upper body so he could rest against Chris’s shoulder. He lay there a while, listening to Chris breathing and behind them, the men working silently by the fire. Eventually he managed the softest of sighs.

“You back with us Vin?” Chris asked gently, his fingers teasing the back of the tracker’s neck.

“Think… so…” Vin responded groggily.

“Fever’s down pard, how you feelin’?”

Vin took a very ragged breath and swallowed dryly, “Like’n I’se spent ten days walkin’ a desert.”

“Thirsty?” Chris reached for his flask at Vin’s nod and gently tipped it to his lips, “Not too much now.”

Vin drank the fluid gratefully, then quipped tiredly, “Ya soundin’ like Nathan.”

Chris became melancholy at the thought and pulled away a little from the tracker. “We should get ya dried an’ back t’bed.” he said, looking to Josiah for assistance.

Ben stepped forward and placed his warm towels on a chair by the tub. It was the first time Vin could remember seeing the boy since his escape and the sight of him surprised the tracker. Chris felt the unbidden flinch and moved protectively behind Vin’s back.

“Ben…” Vin called softly to the youngster.

Ben lowered his eyes to the floor in shame.

“Look at me,” Vin said, his voice slightly stronger.

Josiah squeezed the young man’s shoulder reassuringly and slowly Ben looked up to meet the tracker’s gaze.

“I wanna thank ya kid…” Vin paused to catch his breath, “Fer helpin’ me escape that place…” he raised his arm from the water in an effort that had him gasping in pain, “Come here…”

Ben stepped close to the tracker’s side and took the offered hand, squeezing it gently. Vin had no strength left to return the gesture but he managed a faint smile and nod. Relief flooded the youngster, he glanced at the glowering Larabee for a moment then smiled at Vin. His words were more confident and authoritative now he had Vin’s approval.

“Vin, we will lift you from the water and sit you here, by the fire to dry you. It will not take long.” He looked to both Vin and Chris for their consent.

Vin nodded weakly. Chris pursed his lips into a thin, disapproving line but readied himself to lift the tracker. Josiah gathered Vin by the knees and Ben held the injured ankle, with Chris lifting him under the arms the Texan was relieved of his blanket and gently lifted from the tub and carried to the chair.

Vin shivered fitfully both from the cold and pain. He rested against the gunslinger as they wrapped him in towels and carefully dried him. He was too weary to assist and had to sit helplessly as the men lifted and gently dried each limb. Eventually, with his eyes drifting closed he was carefully carried to the bed.

Vin’s frail body was laid onto the clean sheets, and covered by as many blankets as they could muster. Chris carefully tucked his charge in and tried to untangle the fingers from his shirt front. Vin would not be persuaded to let go so Chris settled onto the bed and drew the tracker into his arms. He was tired, Vin was exhausted – would a little sleep go amiss? Settling down with the injured man resting against his chest Chris let his eyes drift closed.

Watching from the partition Josiah smiled fondly at the sight before him. Neither man would admit it but they needed each other. Josiah hoped they would be reconciled once the tracker returned to health. Lifting his eyes to heaven the preacher offered up a simple prayer.

+ + + + + + +

When Nathan burst into the cabin he found two guns pointing at him.

“Hey, don’t shoot the Doc!” he said as he swept past Chris and Josiah to check on Vin’s condition.

“You got ‘em?” Larabee asked as he holstered his weapon.

“Yep. Didn’t take no catchin’, they were lookin’ fer the boy.”

“How many?”

“Six, includin’ Ben’s pa and brother.”

“They’ll be scared,” Ben whispered.

Larabee stormed over to the boy. “As scared as Vin was when he was strung naked from a tree and had the life beaten out of him?”

The boy cowered in the corner, aware that he’d said the wrong thing at the wrong time.

“Tie him back up Josiah, don’t want him runnin’ off to help his folk.”

The preacher thought it unnecessary, but refrained from arguing with the irate gunslinger.

“What’ll you do to them.” he asked calmly.

“Take ‘em back to Four Corners. They’ll stand trial for kidnappin’ and attempted murder.” Chris answered coldly.

“No, you can’t! You haven’t got the law behind you,” Ben cried out.

“Wrong there son,” Josiah replied before Larabee could, “Y’see we work for Judge Travis. Circuit judge fer these parts.”

“Oh no…” Benjamin sank further into the corner and allowed Josiah to tie him up without complaint. “They could go to jail.”

“My heart bleeds for them.” Larabee’s attention returned to Nathan. “We did everythin’ you said Doc, and more.” He quickly explained what they’d done to ease Vin’s fever.

“Done good too.” Nathan praised. “Fever’s breakin’ and he’s breathin’ easier.”

“Over the worst?”

“Could be.”

For the first time in weeks, Chris’ own aches didn’t hurt as badly. He now understood Josiah’s talk of balance. He’d lost his equilibrium the day Ella Gaines walked back into his life.

Once Vin was returned to good health the scales would be even again.

“Best get a meal ready for the boys. They’ll be hungry when they return.”

“Maybe Vin’ll be up to eatin’ somethin’ later,” Nathan observed quietly, his attention still on the injured man.

While Nathan nursed and Josiah rustled up some food, Chris stood looking through the window and contemplated the action he would take once the prisoners were in his grasp.

He sensed Benjamin staring at him but refused to acknowledge the youth. The boy was a decent person concerned about the welfare of his family; Chris didn’t want to be dissuaded by the fear in the boy’s eyes.