Breaking A Man by Angie

For Paula, who wanted Vin hurt and away from town. Happy Birthday!

The sun was just peeking over the horizon to the east when Vin Tanner pulled his mount to a stop. On the open desert, he watched a small jack rabbit frolicking around a tumble weed. Overhead, an eagle called to its mate. Drawing a deep breath, Vin's cheek twitched into a soft grin, the kit of foxes he had been watching were just coming out of their den. The female nosed each one as they stood, legs trembling while they took in the big world.

Rich smoked ham and eggs with a helping of pan-fried potatoes hit the spot as Vin dug into his breakfast a few hours later. Light, fluffy biscuits practically melted on his tongue when he plucked one, still hot from the oven, out of the basket the waitress set on the table. He couldn't imagine much better than what he had right here, right now. Chris entered the restaurant, scanning the tables until he spotted Tanner, moving to join him.

"Coffee's fresh," Vin commented between bites. Chris grunted, taking the pot from the trivet to fill one of the cups. The waitress caught his eye and he nodded. Moments later, a plate identical to Vin's was placed in front of him. Taking up the pepper mill, he added some spice to his eggs. "Going out to the reservation for a few days," Vin informed him.

"Anything I need to worry about?" Chris asked.

"Nah, just going for a visit, do a little hunting, maybe jerk some deer meat," Vin answered.

"Sounds good. Watch your back."

"Always do."

The rest of the meal was finished in companionable silence. Nathan wandered in to join them, followed by Josiah. The waitress brought each man his usual without comment, familiarity with their individual preferences already part of her routine. JD popped in, wolfing down his meal and picking leftovers from the other plates while carrying on a somewhat disjointed conversation. Slouched in his chair, Vin was the picture of relaxed ease. Chris finished his coffee, rising to make his morning rounds. Extending his arm to Vin, he clasped the younger man's forearm, knowing they probably wouldn't see each other before he left for the reservation.

Buck and Ezra shared breakfast at the saloon, both of them having risen late. Inez placed platters on the table, allowing each man to help himself to the food. While Buck went for the fried eggs lying on a bed of seasoned rice, Ezra preferred the spicy potatoes mixed with scrambled eggs covered with hot sauce.

"Dang, I don't see how you can eat that first thing in the morning," Buck said.

"As one of our compatriots would certainly remind us, it is hardly morning," Ezra replied, glancing toward the bright sun shining through the window in spite of the curtains. "And Senorita Recillos is an accomplished chef."

Shortly after a light lunch, Vin packed his saddlebag with the food the waitress had insisted he take. She had bundled some chicken and a couple of biscuits after hearing that he was heading out for a few days. In his mind's eye, he could just see one of the others shaking their head at him. No matter how much he insisted that he didn't need it, women felt compelled to lavish food and treats on him. Not that he minded, not by a long shot, Mrs. Potter made cookies and cakes that were to die for. Checking his cinch one more time, he swung up into the saddle, turning the horse toward the open end of town.

Sitting on a chair outside of the jail, Ezra dipped his head toward Tanner as he rode past. While he could certainly understand the need for a change of scenery, the reservation was not what Ezra would consider a good time. Now if there were to be a decent poker game going on there, he might possibly be persuaded to venture out, but it was unlikely. Returning his attention to the cards in his hand, he cut them, flipping the ace of spades on top of the deck.

Riding toward the reservation, Vin's thoughts tended to drift. He was aware of his surroundings as the horse moved along at a steady pace. The fringes on his jacket brushed his thighs while the wind stirred the longer tresses that hung below his hat. His eyes were focused on the ridge, watching the wispy clouds meandering across the azure sky. A small dot circled, floating on the air currents.

It was dusk when he finally decided to make camp for the night. With his horse picketed nearby, Vin built a small fire to keep away any curious animals. He tossed a handful of clippings on the flames, creating a soothing odor that would also keep away mosquitoes and biting flies. Sipping tepid water from his canteen, he finished the chicken and the biscuits, mentally thanking the young woman who had given them to him. His eye caught a streak across the sky, turning his attention to the first of the winking lights overhead. A couple of smaller stripes appeared and disappeared as he watched, with a fascination as old as time.

The crunch of gravel under boot had him reaching for his mare's leg even before his eyes were fully open. The gun wouldn't come off of the ground and he opened his eyes to see a rather dirty boot pinning it down. Following the boot upwards, Vin found himself staring down the bore of a rather impressive Dragoon. He lifted his hands, blinking in the early morning light.

"Smart man," a voice commented. "Gimme your hands!"

Vin found himself in manacles, to his dismay. Too soon, the men were yanking him to his feet, pushing him toward his horse. The unfamiliar men combined with Vin's struggling worked Peso into a fit of pique. When his rider was shoved, falling against the fender on the saddle, the animal squealed, teeth reaching out to pinch the arm of one of the men.

"Why you ... I oughta," the man growled as he drew back his fist. Peso's ears flattened back against his head only an instant before he lashed out with his hind feet, striking one of the other horses. In the jostling of equine and human, Peso bolted, his reins flipping in the wind as he ran.

"I guess you all are a horse short," Vin drawled softly.

"No problem, you can walk ... or we can drag you," the man replied, tobacco stained teeth revealed in a malicious grin. "It's the same to me either way," he continued, reaching for the length of rope hanging from his saddle.

"Stupid, stupid!" Vin scolded himself. With his hands shackled at the small of his back, the man had put the rope around his neck. If he stumbled, he would be dragged, the rope tightening around his throat and cutting off his air. Fortunately, the men were in no particular hurry, their horses moving at an easy walk. He had heard them talking about having enough prisoners to make it worth their time.

Their journey took them into a small canyon. Beyond the dust stirred by the horses, Vin could see a line of ramshackle buildings and a corral. His sharp eyes scanned the area, mapping out an escape route. His casual appraisal of his surroundings did not go unnoticed.

"Don't go getting any bright ideas about escaping. You'll only make it worse on yourself," the man holding the rope commented.

"Don't hardly see as it can be too much worse," Vin replied glibly. He saw the man's jaw tighten and realized he was about to regret his words. The horse jumped into a jog, throwing Vin from his feet. He hit the ground, turning to land on his shoulder, fighting to get his feet under him somehow. The rope tightened, cutting off his breath. Just as he grew too lightheaded to continue to struggle, the horse slowed and finally stopped.

"That took some of the wind out of his sails," one of the others commented.

"Ain't so full of piss and vinegar now," the man on the horse agreed, giving the gasping man a nudge with the toe of his boot.

When he came to his senses again, Vin was in a cage. To his right and left, other men who also had the misfortune of being captured by the same men lay in similar cages. Groaning softly as he tried to sit up, Vin studied his surroundings. A tall post sat in a depression, bloody manacles hanging from the top. Farther along, two more posts held up a cross piece. But the thing that made his skin crawl was the gallows in the distance. Six roped dangled, swaying and turning in the breeze. His hand went to his throat unconsciously, as fear caused him to break into a light sweat.

As the sun was dipping below the side of the canyon, the men came out of one of the buildings, laughing as they approached the row of cages. "Now, you all have been tried and convicted of the crime of ... being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sentence is that you be tortured for our entertainment until dead!"

"You can't do that!" an angry voice protested.

"Ah, I see we have a volunteer," the man who had been speaking announced. The protesting man was dragged from his cage after a rifle butt in the ribs made him controllable. He was stripped to his underclothes before being dragged to the tall pole with the manacles at the top. Even as the man weakly struggled, his hands were forced above his head into the steel restraints. One of the men handed off a can, which was poured on the man's arms and legs. The can's contents wouldn't be clear to the others for a while.

Once the first 'volunteer' was secured, the men returned to the cages, "Now, all of you lot, strip down to your skivvies." Frightened and intimidated, they began to peel off their outer clothing, passing it through the bars to their captors. Vin, still sore from the walking and being dragged, was last to finish, finding the man he decided to be the leader staring at him with a grin. "And you just volunteered for our next little entertainment," he said, motioning to one of his lackeys to unlock the cage door.

His hands were shackled behind his back again before he was shoved toward the poles with the cross piece. A rope was thrown over the top, the hangman's noose at the end twisting and jumping as it was adjusted. Vin's preservation instinct kicked in and he began to resist the two men who were compelling him forward.

"Now, we aren't totally heartless," the leader said, drawing chuckles from his men, "so we will give you a chance." Vin saw what amounted to a one-legged stool in the man's hand. "As long as you can keep your balance, you can breathe. If you make it to daylight, you live."

Vin fought as the rope was guided over his head and snugged up around his neck. He lashed out with his foot, catching one of the men in the groin. Retaliation was swift and decidedly painful as a flurry of kicks and punches landed on his body. Dazed and reeling, he was lifted up, his feet lashed together and positioned on the surface of the one-legged stool. The rope was tightened before being tied off. Struggling to maintain his balance, Vin's eyes darted around, watching to see if one of the men would knock away the precarious support.

"Don't worry, we play by our rules. If you're still breathing when the sun peeps over that ledge, I'll let you live," the leader said. "But it's a long time till dawn."

Shaking, Vin concentrated on keeping his balance. Digging deeply into his training with the Kiowa, he centered his mind, breathing calmly. He could do this; he had to if he wanted to live.

Several hours later, the other man began to scream. It was too dark for Vin to see but the man was calling out what was happening, so he didn't need to see him to know how bad it was.

"Get them off of me! Get the ants off of me! Get them off!" he screamed, over and over. From the nearby cabin, laughter could be heard. Gradually, the man's screams built in volume, words disintegrating into mere syllables and then to just hoarse screams before he finally fell silent. Vin shuddered, nearly losing his balance before shutting the man out, it was the only way he could survive.

Morning came, slowly but surely, to the men in the secluded valley. The men in the cages slept, exhausted from their unwilling vigil for the screaming man. As the sky turned the inky darkness to shades of gray, Vin could finally see him. The man's bare skin was mottled with bruising from the thousands of bites. Closing his eyes, Vin willed the image from his mind, replacing it with the little fox and her kit from the previous morning. Concentrating on the calming memories, he was able to hold on. "Just a little longer," he told himself, "just a little longer."

One by one, the men exited the cabin strolling along the row of cages where they urinated on the sleeping men. The man Vin had kicked bypassed the cages, coming instead to stand so that his stream fell across Vin's bare feet. "Didn't think you'd still be here this morning, boy. Thought for sure you'da skittered away. Ya don't look so confident of yourself now. I'll bet that hurts, standing like that all night. I wonder what would happen if I was to do this?" The man picked up a good sized rock and hurled it, hitting Vin in the thigh just below his groin.

He might have stayed on the stool if it were not for the muscle spasm that was set off by the rock. Vin's feet slipped on the urine and he found himself hanging. The rope tightened by degrees, cutting off his breath. His hands twisted ineffectually in the manacles as he fought to get hold of the rope. Just before he lost consciousness, he heard the man laughing.

Like a sack of wet sand, Vin's body hit the ground. The leader darted forward to loosen the noose, smacking the breathless man between the shoulder blades until he drew a lungful of air. Once he was certain the prisoner wouldn't die, he let him slump to the ground, coughing and gagging.

When Vin was able to look around next, he noticed that one of the ropes from the gallows was gone. The cage midway down the row was empty, a stark reminder of the fate in store for all of them if they didn't get away. At some point, they had put a tin pan in the cage with some beans and a few bits of boiled potato on it. Half a biscuit, dry and hard as granite also lay on the plate. Ants had discovered the wealth of food and several had managed to get over the lip of the pan. Starving, Vin scooped the food up, ants and all, shoving it into his mouth, swallowing it whole. He broke up the biscuit, sopping up the moisture from the plate before cramming it into his mouth. The crack of a whip caused him to flinch, looking around to see who or what was being lashed.

The man staggered under the blow, leaning heavily on the shovel. When his muscles unclenched slightly, he went back to digging. He carefully averted his eyes from the body of the man lying beside the hole. The ants that had killed him were still crawling around on his body, across unseeing eyes, in and out of the nose and mouth. He was lashed again for not digging fast enough. Spots swam across his field of vision as the hot sun and lack of water sapped him. The grave was barely knee deep when he was allowed to stop.

Bright and hot, the sun beat down on the men in the cages. Even the ants had the sense and ability to get into the shade. The captives watched as the body of their unfortunate compatriot was roughly dumped into the hole. As the sandy soil was placed over him, each man wondered who would lie next to him ... and who next to them.

Exhaustion fell heavily on Vin, combined with the heat, keeping him in a lethargic state. When the men came to survey the row of cages, they passed him by, choosing someone else for their next, sick game. This time, they chose the biggest, strongest looking captive. The man tried to break and run for it, getting shot in the calf of his leg for his effort. He was dragged back, screaming in pain. Ropes were passed around his wrists and ankles before two of the camp horses were brought over. The ropes were tied to the saddle horns and gradually tightened until the man was nearly lifted off of the ground. He began to blubber, begging them not to hurt him as he realized what they were going to do. Two men mounted the horses and began to urge them to pull. The man screamed as his arms and legs were pulled by the strong animals. Gradually, the ropes cut into his wrists, dripping blood on the ground. The man continued to scream until he was hoarse. There was a dull popping sound when the man's arm finally dislocated, causing him to give one last cry of pain before passing out.

The man was released and dumped back into his cage. After giving each prisoner a piece of jerky and some water, their captors went back to the cabin, drinking and laughing as they imitated the big man's cries. Left sweltering in the sun, the other men stared blankly across the landscape, the tableau for their deaths already set.

At dusk, the men returned for more fun. They shackled all of their hands and drove them across the compound to the gallows. Vin's knees locked at the foot of the steps until he heard the pump-action rifle being primed. Swallowing his terror, he lifted one of his feet and then the other, slowly ascending to the platform. He was shoved down the line to the first available rope. He closed his eyes, concentrating on not shaming himself by begging. It took a while to get the man with the bullet wound up the steps but they finally stood side by side, each with a noose around his neck.

"Now, what we have here is a little game I call 'Lucky.' Only one of you is standing on a door that will actually open when Zeke over there throws the handle. Whichever one of you is standing on that door is the lucky one, your sentence will be carried out. We'll do this every day until we run out of prisoners. How does that sound?" The leader grinned at his men, noticing that none of the prisoners was going to answer. "Okay, get ready now. Zeke, get ready. On the count of three, one, two, three."

The lever was thrown and a door opened beneath the man who had dug the grave earlier in the day. Vin swallowed hard, the man had been standing right next to him. He could tell that the fall hadn't killed him, the man was gagging and kicking in the air.

"Would ya look at that? I wouldn'ta thought a hanged man could do that. Shoot, he might last a while. Zeke, where'd you learn to tie a noose?" one of the men on the ground goaded the other man.

They were returned to their cages one at a time. Vin stumbled as he looked back, the image of the man burned into his memory for all time. Urine dripped from the body, which still swayed from its death throes. The man's face was red, like he'd been in the sun too long. Spittle ran from his open mouth, hanging like spider webs.

"Get a real good look," the man pushing him urged. "In fact, let's get you right up close so you can see him," he said, changing direction. Vin tried to resist, he didn't want to go any closer to the dead body. His knees folded and he was dragged. Forced to kneel, the man wrapped his arm around Vin's throat, gripping him by the hair to make him look. "That's gonna be you up there one of these days. Look at how he pissed hisself, like a baby not out of diapers. Do you think it hurts, when that rope cuts inta your throat? You'd know, wouldn't ya, after last night. Look at him. Look at him!" he yelled when he realized that the long haired man had his eyes clenched shut.

When he was finally returned to his cage, Vin pulled his knees to his chest, wrapping his arms around them to quell the traitorous trembling. Leaning against the bars and ignoring the pan of water on the ground, he tried to sleep.

+ + + + + + +

In the morning, the men returned to taunt the men in the cages. One of them made a point of getting down where he could see Vin's face as he tried to goad the captive into a reaction. "Your friend is waiting over there for you. You wanna go see him this morning?"

Vin ignored the man, keeping his eyes focused on the back of his hand on top of his knee. He had finally drunk the water in the pan some time in the night. Later, breakfast was more of the beans and boiled potatoes with another measure of precious water. Like the others, Vin quickly finished the meager offering. His stomach grumbled at the scant quantity but held on to the food. Around mid morning, two of the other prisoners were taken to dig a grave for the hanged man. When the hole was ready, Vin was pulled from his cage.

"Since you and the deceased were so close, I thought you'd like to bring him over here to his final resting place," Zeke teased. He shoved the gangly man, missing the look of pure rage that was directed his way. While one of the other men went up on the platform to let the body down, Vin stood staring at the ground. More than anything, he wanted to launch himself at Zeke, wrapping his fingers around the man's throat.

The body hit the ground right at Vin's feet, sightless eyes gazing up at him. After another shove, he leaned down to grab the dead man by his ankles. Wearily, he dragged the carcass over to the hole, rolling him until he toppled in. The other prisoners immediately began to cover the body, hiding it from view. Vin stumbled back to his cage, preserving his strength. He had to get out of here, he just had to.

Lunch was a biscuit and water. The leader taunted them again, "That was the last meal for one of you." As soon as they finished, they were shackled and brought out of the cages again. This time, they were taken into the corral. Each of the horses had a length of rope attached to the saddle horn. The prisoners were tied to the ropes by their wrists. One of their captors fired a shot into the air, startling the animals. Vin grunted as his arms were jerked but he managed to keep to his feet, unlike the man with the bullet wound. He and another of the unfortunate prisoners were being dragged around on the rough ground by the panicked steeds.

They were taking bets on which man would be the last to fall. Every time the horses slowed or started to calm, one of the men would do something to stir them up again. Vin stumbled, landing hard on his hip but quickly regaining his feet. There were now only two prisoners who hadn't fallen. When the horses were thoroughly lathered, the game was halted. The exhausted men were driven, not back to their cages, but to the gallows.

Faced with his worst fear yet again, Vin shuddered as his feet met the rough wood of the steps. He had managed to avoid being the one to stand on the door where the man had been hanged the day before. His hands were ruthlessly yanked behind his back and shackled again. The rope was settled around his neck, tightening until it was snug against his skin. Once more drawing on his Kiowa training, Vin drew deep breaths, calming his quailing heart. He focused on the pair of birds he could see flying above the lip of the canyon.

"Alright boys, are you ready to play 'Lucky' again? It was so interesting, wasn't it? I think Zeke has finally gotten the ropes and the drop right. Shall we try it out? On three, one, two ... wait, I think we should have two winners today. Curly, would you fix another one of the trapdoors?" the leader said, turning to a nearly bald man at his side. Like an eager pup, the man nodded, rushing to disappear under the platform. Beginning at the end nearest Zeke, he pushed up on the first trapdoor. The man standing on it cried out in fear.

"Oh God, no! Not me! Please! Not me!" He continued to plead and beg, even as Curly moved to the next trapdoor, where he repeated his actions. Only two of the five prisoners managed not to cry out. Vin refused to give them the satisfaction and the other man was too stunned to respond. The first prisoner continued to scream and beg until Zeke took a bandana from his pocket to gag him.

Distancing his mind from his body, Vin waited for the wood beneath his bare feet to fall away. Peripherally, he heard the leader counting down in a loud voice. The lever squeaked as it was pulled, giving them an instant of warning.

"No-o-o-" one of the men cried. The word was ended by the muffled crunch as his neck snapped, his body twitching only once before going still. The second man didn't make a sound as he dropped. Unfortunately, he didn't die immediately. Their captors laughed and cheered as the man shook, his struggles tightening the rope by degrees until he finally went limp.

When Zeke's hand touched Vin, he flinched, startled out of his reverie. The rope was loosened, the thickly wrapped part hanging against his shoulder for a moment. As soon as the noose was lifted from around his head, Vin dropped to his knees, retching without bringing anything up. More laughter and jeering fell on his ears until he was kicked in the side. He managed to stand, his legs shaking like a newborn foal.

"Wait on that one," the leader said, pointing to Vin. To his horror, he was led under the gallows. Driven to his knees, he was secured to the support post between the two hanged men. When he let his chin come down to his chest, one of the men grabbed him by the hair. When they finished, he couldn't lower his head. Every time he opened his eyes, he could see the dead bodies only a couple of feet away.

While the other two prisoners got more beans and water at dusk, Vin was allowed only what water he could swallow as a canteen was poured over his head. The water was warm and brackish but he greedily gulped three or four mouthfuls before it was gone. For kicks, the leader had Curly turn the dead bodies so that they faced the bound man. Vin struggled to avoid their blank eyes. The smell of urine was strong under the platform, evidence that it wasn't the first time it had been used, probably for this same sick band of murders.

By morning, the man with the bullet wound was in a bad way. He was burning with fever. His leg was grossly swollen, oozing a nasty combination of fluids and giving off the distinct odor of infection. His captors couldn't rouse him for their games, not even after they jabbed his leg with a rifle butt, busting the wound open and spilling the gore on the ground. The leader said to leave him while the other two dug the graves. Vin was released, given his pan of food and told to finish quickly. The chunks of potato were harder to swallow, his gorge rising by the second. When a canteen was thrust at him, he grabbed it, sucking down the tepid water as fast as he could. The container was snatched away, wringing a soft moan of protest.

"Dig the graves and you can have more," he heard the man growl. Staggering on his shaky legs, Vin slowly made his way across the compound, taking the shovel that was sticking out of the ground. His head swam and his stomach rolled as he attacked the hard, dry dirt.

+ + + + + + +

Squinting into the rising sun, Chanu stared at the horse in the distance. When some of the children reported that the animal appeared to be loose, he had hurried to find it. Kneeing his paint pony forward, he kept watch on the surrounding landscape. The black gelding was hungrily cropping the grass, shifting only slightly in response to the approaching man. Sliding from the bare back of his mount, Chanu slowly walked up to the horse, reaching out to catch hold of the reins.

Running his hands gently along the mane, Chanu realized that the animal was familiar. A quick check of the saddlebags confirmed that it was Vin Tanner's horse. There was no blood on the saddle, no hint of what had happened to the rider. Loosening the cinch, he checked Peso's legs to be sure he was uninjured before leading him back toward the town.

+ + + + + + +

Sitting around the table at the restaurant, Chris listened as Buck teased JD about something that had happened between the young sheriff and Casey. Nathan and Josiah chuckled softly as the younger man grew flustered. Finally, to change the subject, JD asked, "When's Vin due back?"

"I don't know. He said he was going to the reservation, maybe jerk some deer meat, could be a while yet," Chris answered, feeling that odd little kick in his stomach as he spoke. During the night, he had wakened from an especially vivid dream. He remembered when Yates and Eli Joe had gotten hold of Vin. That soft drawl still echoed in his head, 'I ain't afraid of dyin'. I just don't want to go out like that, strung up like some mangy dog.' He knew how deeply Vin harbored that fear, he had seen it clearly in his face.

"Chris?" Buck asked, waving his hand in front of the glazed hazel eyes.

Flinching away from the too-close hand, the gunslinger scowled, "What?"

"You looked lost for a minute there, pard, you feelin' all right?" Buck asked.

Seeing the others watching him intently, Chris shoved away from the table. "I'm fine," he tossed over his shoulder as he walked out. Only when the jingle of his spurs had faded did Josiah speak, "Our brother is troubled."

As soon as the town came into sight, Peso picked up the pace, moving ahead when he had been content to walk alongside of Chanu's paint. The young Indian felt the hatred in the eyes of those who witnessed his arrival. The big blacksmith looked up from where he was working at the forge, shading his eyes for a moment before he walked over.

"I need to find the friends of Vin Tanner," Chanu said evenly.

"I 'spect you'll find most of 'em at the restaurant about now," Yosemite said, moving to take the horses. "You go on ahead. I'll saddle their horses and have 'em ready." Surprised that the man had simply taken him at his word, Chanu nodded and slid off of his mount.

"This most certainly cannot bring glad tidings," Ezra said as he spotted the agitated young Indian coming down the boardwalk. "I'll go get Buck," JD said, turning to jog back up the alley.

"What are you doing in town?" Chris asked before Chanu had even spoken to him.

"I found Vin's horse roaming free. Something has happened to him," he answered, not shrinking from the intimidation the gunslinger projected.

"Can you show us where you found him?" Chris asked.

"I can do better, I can follow the trail to find Vin. But I am not so foolish as to believe I can help him alone. I have no wish to die by the white man's law," Chanu explained. "The man at the livery said he would prepare your horses."

It took only a short time for the seven men to be ready to ride. Nathan's bags were stuffed to overflowing with medical supplies, Josiah's with extra clothes, JD and Buck brought along extra food. Chris stopped at Mrs. Potter's store and got extra ammunition for their weapons. Ezra appeared at the last minute, tucking a fancy rifle into the sleeve on his saddle and the case with the sniper rifle Lucias Stutz had carried carefully stowed in his saddlebag. Chris's jaw tightened for an instant, but then he nodded curtly to Ezra.

+ + + + + + +

After they had buried the two hanged men, Vin and the other prisoner, an older man named Hubert, were allowed to return to their cages. Risking a glance at the third man, Hubert called to Vin, "I think he's dead." Only giving a nod, Vin focused his eyes elsewhere. He had to come up with a plan, he had to escape.

Lunch was another pan of beans and, as a distraction, a wedge of coarse cornbread. Both men choked it down, even to licking the battered tin pans. They were given only a ladle of water each. Easing his aching body into a more comfortable position, Vin closed his eyes and surrendered to sleep.

A shovel connected with the bars quite close to his head and Vin jerked awake. Curly smiled cruelly before moving back into the shade. As soon as the threat was removed, Vin closed his eyes again. Each time he drifted into a sound sleep, the balding man would slam the shovel down on the cage, jarring him awake. When the sun finally allowed shadows to fill the canyon, he and Hubert were rousted from the cages again.

"Dig three this time. That way, we'll already have the hole ready for whichever of you lasts the longest," the leader explained. Both of the lethargic men moved at a snails pace as they worked. The whip returned, biting into Vin's shoulders when he paused to catch his breath. Hubert also felt the lash when the sandy dirt slipped from the shovel to fall on Zeke's boots. "Hurry up! It's getting time to play our little game again," the man urged. "I want it to be light enough so's we can see you dance on the end of the rope."

Deciding that now was as good a time as any, Vin turned with the shovel raised. The click of a gun hammer only caused him to pause for an instant. When he drew back to swing, a bullet slammed into the blade of the shovel, nearly causing him to drop it. The man with the whip swung, wrapping the leather around the handle, jerking it out of his hands.

"You got a death wish, boy?" the leader asked. "Let's see how lucky you are this evening."

Vin struggled as the manacles were locked on his wrists. He was shoved from behind, falling on the hard-packed ground. A swift kick to his ribs stole his breath before he was yanked up to his feet. When he refused to climb the steps, a rope was tied around his neck and he was dragged. Like a wild mustang, he fought the rope, pulling back even as the noose tightened. When the whip burned across the back of his thighs, he stumbled.

"Get him on up there and let's get on with it!" the leader called angrily. Two of his men moved to take hold of the resisting man, carrying him bodily up the steps to the gallows platform. By brute strength, they forced Vin to stand as the rope was traded for the hangman's noose.

There wasn't even time to try to prepare his mind, Zeke quickly threw the lever. The hinges on the trapdoor squealed as Hubert's body disappeared, followed by the muffled sounds of protest as he slowly strangled to death. The men laughed and clapped until the body went still. When the noose was removed from around his neck, Vin's eyes rolled back in his head as he slid to his knees and toppled onto his side. He didn't hear the jeering or the threats the men heaped on him.

+ + + + + + +

Chanu led the men to the place where Vin had spent the first night. They found a button from his shirt, lost when the men yanked him up from the ground. It was too dark to go any farther so they decided to begin again at first light. After designating the watch, the men spread out to try to rest their tired, worried bodies and minds. As the moon rose, only Chris and Chanu were still sitting up, staring into the fire as if it held the answers.

"You are close to Vin. Closer than the others," Chanu stated.

"Does that matter?" Chris asked.

"No, but you knew he was in danger before I reached your town."

"How do you know that?"

"I can see it in your eyes. My arrival only confirmed what you already knew. The spirits brought me to you so I could help you to find your missing brother," Chanu explained. Their eyes met across the fire and held for a long while until the Indian nodded. Taking up his blanket, Chanu rolled over on his side and slept.

+ + + + + + +

When he came to, Vin saw that he was back in his cage. A tin cup and a canteen rested in the corner near his feet. He debated leaving it there, to hasten the time when his body would begin to shut down but something in his heart refused to allow him to give up. A tiny flame glowed inside of him, telling him that help was on the way, he need only hold on until it found him. With shaky hands, he took the cup. There were little bits of ham in the beans, causing Vin to wonder if they were trying to keep him alive a little longer. After the food was gone, he took only a few swallows from the water before leaning against the bars to sleep.

In the dream, they were sitting on a rock overlooking a broad, flat mesa. The sky was a solid bowl of blue, marred only by the thin wisps of clouds. A feeling of contentment and satisfaction washed over him, warm and welcome as a fire on a cold night. No worries reached them in that place. They talked of life and loves, of friendship and obligation, as the moon and stars completed their journey across the heavens.

In the distance, they saw an animal limping along. It stumbled often, always swaying unsteadily before continuing. When the creature came closer, the men saw that it was a gangly young wolf. The poor animal's body clearly showed the ravages of torture. Both men felt pain deep in their heart as the wolf sank to the ground, unable to rise again. Suddenly, from the other direction, where the moon had finally kissed the horizon again, there came a disturbance. The men watched, safe in their high perch, as a cloud of dust approached the fallen animal. When the dust cleared, a black wolf led a pack to the other wolf. At his sides, a large animal loped, his muzzle seeming to smile, on the other side, a smaller wolf, of a different type, easily kept pace. Behind that trio, a massive silver wolf ran beside an equally large black animal. Bringing up the rear, two smaller animals, young and in their prime, kept watch over the backs of the others. This was not a pack to be meddled with if one wished to survive.

The wolves circled the fallen animal, licking him and nudging him gently with their noses. Their very presence seemed to give the first wolf a new vigor. When the fallen animal weakly lifted his head, the black lead wolf licked his muzzle enthusiastically. After a few more minutes, the wolf came slowly to his feet, supported by the massive black and gray. As the moon disappeared behind the horizon and the sun rose, the wolves tipped their noses to the sky and howled, filling the men with awe and hope.

+ + + + + + +

Tossing under his blanket, Chris murmured softly. Chanu's eyes brightened at the only word clear enough to be understood, 'Vin.' He had felt the power coming from the sleeping man, calling him from sleep. Turning his gaze to the others, Chanu saw that they were all awake. Buck came back from his morning toilet, heading across the camp to waken the last sleeper. Chanu caught him, heading him off with a hard glare.

"We need to get on the trail," Buck protested softly.

"He is on a spirit journey. You must let him return on his own," Chanu replied. Sighing in frustration, Buck looked to Nathan, who only shrugged. He looked to Josiah, who conveniently found his coffee cup suddenly very interesting.

"Don't look at me!" JD said, his eyes wide as he shook his head. Ezra kept his attention carefully directed to his shaving mirror to avoid the question. It was a moot point anyway because Chris twitched suddenly, coming awake and sitting up quickly.

+ + + + + + +

The shovel connected with the bars, jarring Vin to sudden wakefulness. Realizing that he had been dreaming, Vin sighed. It was a good dream, a gift from the spirits. He knew that his friends were coming for him and that Chanu was with them. He had recognized the wolf spirit immediately. Vin had grown close to the young brave after his wife was killed. There was something between them, a connection, not like what he shared with Chris, but just different.

Curly watched with growing unease as the prisoner sat up. When he had hit the bars with the shovel before, the man sprang up with fear in his eyes, now he looked more alert, like he was waiting for someone. He would just have to make sure that they played 'Lucky' earlier in the day. It was kind of boring for him anyway, these men hadn't cried and begged as much as the last group of sniveling cowards they had snatched up south of the border. Except for a few coins, this group hadn't had anything of value to steal.

Vin finished the water in the canteen, conserving his energy for the arrival of his friends. When Zeke and another man came to get him, he offered no resistance, following them without question. He buried Hubert, wishing help could have come sooner, then returned to his cage. Breakfast was a couple of biscuits with a bit of bacon grease smeared on them and more water. Vin took his time with the food, not willing to risk making himself sick.

Craig Stilman sighed over his coffee. This recent batch of captives had been down right disappointing. He figured they ought to grab a couple of women the next time around, to provide a little more entertainment. Tossing out the dregs from his cup, he stood, looking at the others. "Let's get this over with and get the hell out of here," he announced. "Kip, you and Franklin get the horses ready. Zeke, go set up the gallows."

After the others had left the cabin, Craig called to Curly, "I want to see him broken before he hangs. When he's getting ready I want you to-"

+ + + + + + +

The six men followed the seventh without question. Chris seemed to know exactly where Vin was and wasn't wasting a moment of time or energy getting to him. Except to call a halt to rest the horses, he hadn't spoken to any of them but Chanu could see the change in Chris's eyes. Nathan tried to prepare himself, sensing that they were going into battle. Ezra changed out of his bright coat to the dun colored one he rarely wore. JD instinctively edged closer to Buck. Josiah prayed to every deity whose name he could recall, asking for Vin's safety.

There were fairly recent tracks in the loose, dusty mouth of the canyon. Here Chris paused to speak to the others. "Buck, you and JD are with me, Josiah and Ezra take the south ridge, Nathan and Chanu take the north. Keep your eyes peeled and your heads down," he ordered, the last directed at JD, who whipped his bowler off, stuffing it into his saddlebag. The men nodded, splitting up as directed.

Riding along the south edge of the canyon wall, Ezra spoke softly to his riding companion, "Do you believe in the spirits, Josiah?"

"Are you talking about what Chanu said this morning?"

"Yes, he seemed so certain that Vin and Chris were having some kind of communion of souls as they slumbered. I just wondered what your views are on the topic."

On the other side of the canyon, Nathan silently studied the Indian. He hadn't gotten to know the young man after the death of his 'wife.' Claire Moseley's untimely murder had been the unfortunate product of prejudice. The right Reverend Moseley preached that they were all God's children but he couldn't reconcile his sermon to the idea of his precious little girl lying down with one of them and getting up with a half-breed child.

"I don't suppose those spirits of yours told you how bad Vin's gonna be hurt when we find him," he said, coming alongside of the Indian pony.

"Hmm, no, the spirits don't give me that kind of visions," Chanu answered.

JD was tightly wound as he crept soundlessly behind Buck. He couldn't believe that Chris had chosen to allow him to go with them; he had fully expected to be sent off with the others. The three men stole along the wall of the canyon, having left their horses ground hitched a ways back. As they rounded a curve in the wall, Chris held out his hand, stopping them instantly. He could see a corral with several horses. Two men were busy saddling the animals, laughing and talking as they worked.

+ + + + + + +

Vin offered little resistance as he was called from the cage again. He figured that they would play another one of their sick games with him before the gallows. He figured wrong. The leader approached him, looking up and down the bruised, filthy body. He hoped to see fear in the young man's eyes, it pissed him off that he didn't.

"I'm going to break you yet, boy," he warned. Motioning to the Curly, Vin's hands were shackled in front of his body, then tied around his waist so he couldn't raise them. A hard shove propelled Vin towards the gallows. When they reached the steps, he fought them again, refusing to climb the stairs. A swift kick to his stomach took him to his knees. Craig smiled as he raised the whip, bringing it down across the bowed back.

+ + + + + + +

Vin's scream snapped Chris's head up, causing him to take a step out of the shelter of the rocks. Buck saw his friend freeze, a look of horror on his face. Reaching out, he pulled Chris back, raising his hands, palms forward when a murderous glint lit the hazel eyes.

"What did you see? What are they doing to him?" Buck asked, his voice a breathless whisper.

"Horse whip," Chris said, making Buck and JD's blood run cold.

On the ridges above the camp, four men looked down in growing horror. The whip fell a second time, driving another scream from Vin's throat. They watched in disbelief as the battered form rose to climb the steps. Rough hands forced him onto a trapdoor while one man put a noose around Vin's neck, jerking it savagely to tighten it.

Josiah put a restraining hand on Ezra's arm, stopping him from rising when he saw that the younger man had drawn both of his pistols, forgoing the accuracy of the rifles for the ability to hurl more bullets at one time. The older man could see the other three creeping up on the men in the corral; he wanted to wait until they had eliminated that threat.

On the opposite ridge, Chanu rose up on his knees, freezing when Nathan took hold of his arm, pointing to indicate the trio moving toward the corral. The Indian nodded, returning his attention to the man standing on the gallows.

One of the horses shifted nervously as the three strangers slipped into the corral. Chris moved without hesitation toward the closer man, keeping behind the remuda. When he saw Buck pop up to deliver a hard fist to the other man's jaw, he stepped out of cover, letting all of his rage out in one spectacular swing.

Kip had only an instant to see the darkly clothed man who came out from behind the horses. It was the last image he would ever see. His head spun, taking his body with it as he crashed into the post. His skull shattered on impact, leaving him bleeding out beneath one of the horses.

Catching movement out of the corner of his eye, Franklin straightened from where he was checking the hooves of his horse. Surprise widened his eyes as he saw the man coming toward him. He drew a breath to cry out a warning, only to feel a blinding pain as the man's fist connected with his jaw. Falling back against one of the horses, he slumped to the ground and lay unmoving.

On the gallows, Curly stood beneath the trapdoor, waiting for the signal. When Craig nodded, he punched the trapdoor, rattling the man standing on it. Hearing the others laughing, he wished he could be there to see it; he wanted to see the man wet his pants from fear.

Vin shook when he felt the thump come from below his feet. He knew they had somehow rigged the trapdoors so that they would only fall when the leader wanted them to. He heard the man counting, turning his head to see Zeke taking hold of the lever. His eyes closed as the man threw the squeaking lever, expecting to feel himself falling. He tensed his body, waiting for either the darkness of oblivion or the pain of slow strangulation. When he heard them laughing, he opened his eyes.

"Let's try this again!" Craig called. Set him up again, Zeke!" Vin heard the lever being set again. Another thump hit the door beneath his feet and Vin resisted the urge to try to move, to step off of that square. Craig counted again and Zeke threw the lever again ... and all hell broke loose.

As soon as the lever moved, Vin felt the sickening sensation of falling. The rope tightened around his neck, not breaking it. He began the slow process of strangling.

Shots rang out from the canyon walls, startling the laughing, jeering men, sending them scrambling for cover. Craig made it only a few yards before a bullet from Josiah's Dragoon and one from Buck's pistol sent him spinning into the dirt. The other men fell to a hail of bullets from the other guns, while Chris ran for Vin.

From the corner of his eye, Nathan watched Chanu. His heart nearly stopped when he saw the young Indian hurl the hatchet. Too quickly for his eye to follow, he settled for looking to see where it landed. To his surprise, it struck the cross piece, severing the rope hanging Vin.

Just as he reached out with both arms, Vin's body fell, taking both men to the ground. Chris struggled to turn his friend over so he could get at the rope but Vin's body was in its death throes, rigid and unyielding in spite of the nearness of help. Finally, he got out from under the near-dead weight, grabbing the rope as he struggled to work his fingers under it. He never saw the threat that loomed above his unprotected back.

Curly had leapt back from the flailing feet when the first of the shots rang out. He saw Zeke's body tumble down the steps to land in the dirt, blood pouring from the holes in his chest. When the sound of gunfire slowed, he drew a breath, thinking to call out his surrender. He saw the man in the black duster running toward him and put up his hands. A moment later, the man in black and the hanged prisoner were rolling on the ground practically at his feet. Figuring that they would kill him anyway, he pulled the bowie knife from his belt.

Running alongside of Buck, JD followed Chris with his eyes. The bad guys seemed to be biting the dust pretty quickly. He only hoped it wasn't too late for Vin. It made him feel sick to think that he might never get to spend another relaxing afternoon with him down by the pond, fishing and hearing stories about growing up with the Indians. When Vin's body dropped into Chris's arms, JD had been surprised, until he saw the tomahawk on top of the crosspiece. As his eyes dropped below the gallows platform again, he saw something moving toward the downed men ... and he responded.

The first shot struck his arm, causing him to drop the knife. The second shot hit his shoulder, making him take a step back. A third and fourth shot stole his breath, punching through his ribs to destroy his lungs. Just before his brain stopped processing signals, two more shots hit, sending him sliding down the post.

At first, Buck couldn't figure out why JD was shooting at Vin and Chris. Then, he saw the man, standing over his friends, surprise contorting his features as one after another of JD's bullets bit into his body. Only when the man sank to the ground did the Lightnings stop, dropping quickly into their holsters as the kid took off running.

Even as the bullets flew over his head, Chris was focused on Vin. He managed to wiggle his fingers under the rope, pulling it loose as gently as he could with trembling hands. The body beneath him was still twitching, giving him hope ... until it went completely limp.

"NO-O-O-O!" Chris screamed.

The little Indian pony seemed to fly as it raced back toward the mouth of the canyon. Nathan's bigger, longer legged gelding was having trouble keeping up. Just as he reached the mouth of the canyon, Chris's cry of denial rent the air.

To Josiah's horror, Ezra tossed a rope over the side and was climbing down the rock wall, too eager to get on the ground to wait for his horse. Grabbing up both sets of reins, Josiah mounted, his urgency communicating itself to his mount. Both horses cornered, jostling each other just once before they were pointed into the canyon. Josiah continued to pray, even as he rounded the wall and slid to a stop. Ezra's horse cantered on, slowing at the corral rails.

"Get these things off of him! Vin! Don't you dare die on me! Vin?" Words tumbled from Chris's mouth, heedless of all around him. Buck stuck his hands in between them, having plucked the key to the shackles from the body at the foot of the steps. Chris bristled, not realizing his friend wasn't a threat at first. Leaning down to put his ear next to Vin's mouth, he heard a wheezing sound. "Come on, damn you, breathe!"

"Chris-" Buck said, stopping at the icy glare he received.

Nathan dropped to the ground, dragging his saddlebags off in a smooth motion. His horse moved off, joining the remuda and his stable mates across the way. The healer slid to his knees, carefully cataloging Vin's injuries before reaching out to touch him. Only after glaring at him did Chris relinquish his position at Vin's side.

"We need to get him into that shack. I need water, lots of it. Buck, you help me move him," Nathan said, moving to tuck his hands under Vin's legs. Chris moved to do it, only to be redirected, "I need you to hold his head. Keep it in the same position, don't let it move."

While the three men tended to the injured man in the cabin, the rest of them took care of providing water and fire. It was nearly dusk before they turned their attention to the dead bodies that littered the ground. Franklin, the only one to survive, had crept away as soon as he opened his eyes. He had no intention of getting hanged for what had happened.

Hesitantly, aching with curiosity, JD and the others entered the cabin. Vin lay on the bed in the middle of the room, naked, save for the bandages that covered the stitched lash marks on his back. His filthy union suit had been cut away so Nathan could clean the multitude of cuts and scrapes. The mattress had been raised, by means of several planks wedged in between the frame and the headboard, so that Vin was not lying flat. Around his forehead, a roll of bandage kept his head immobile, secured to a board that ran down behind him.

Getting Chris to allow him to restrain Vin at all had been a major undertaking, especially when the injured man whimpered, trying to pull away from the burning touch of the carbolic on his scraped knees. Buck had patiently calmed the hostile man, reminding him that Nathan would never do anything to hurt Vin unless it was necessary to save his life. He had then returned to the chore of wrapping the thinnest board he could find with strips of torn sheet to pad it and protect Vin from splinters. It was that board that now prevented Vin from being able to turn or lift his head.

After coaxing several ounces of an herbal tea and some thick broth into Vin's mouth, Nathan sank wearily into a chair. It was the first time he had been still since getting indoors. He knew that Vin was tough but he had been tormented cruelly by his captors. Old bruises lay under new ones, mute testament to the abuse he had endured. The only good thing, if you could find anything good in the situation, was that he hadn't broken any bones. His ribs were bruised, but not broken, so he didn't need to have the tight wrapping to further hinder his breathing. As long as his throat didn't swell so badly that it cut off his air supply, he should recover, physically.

During the long night, each of the men took a turn sitting at the side of the bed, waiting to soothe Vin when he wakened. By dawn, when he still hadn't roused, Nathan began to worry. They coaxed fluids by the spoonful into his mouth, taking care that he didn't inhale it and bring on a coughing spell. The healer kept the bruised, battered throat swathed in bandages soaked in cool water to try to keep the worst of the swelling at bay. There was no mention of traveling with him, Vin was too fragile to be subjected to a bumpy, bouncy ride in a wagon, not that they had a wagon anyway.

Buck and JD, for something else to do, went through the saddlebags, discovering several letters addressed to different people. From the assortment of mounds of freshly turned dirt, they knew that several people had not been as fortunate as their friend. They also found a wanted poster. The men were so intent on torturing their captives that they apparently didn't realize that Vin had a bounty on his head.

Josiah prepared a meal from the supplies they had brought with them, supplementing it with the rabbits Chanu provided after his morning ride. A pan of biscuits rounded out the meal. Since he had nibbled while cooking, Josiah offered to tend to Vin while the others ate. Nathan had started bathing the injured man, knowing that it was important to keep away infection. Taking up the cloth, Josiah gently wiped the high cheekbones and along the square jaw.

It would later be said that scent is one of the strongest memory triggers. An odor stimulated Vin's nasal passages, causing his mouth to water. The smell of biscuits and spicy pan gravy made his stomach clench, rumbling softly. Suddenly, his eyes sprang open, filled with terror at being unable to move.

"Easy Vin, just take it easy," Josiah said, catching the hand that jerked up from the quilt. Chris practically choked on his coffee before leaping to his feet to rush across the room. He leaned over the bed so he could look into the fear-filled eyes.

"Take it easy, Vin. It's going to be fine. Don't try to move," Chris said, his voice soothingly pitched as he took the hand Josiah had captured. Vin's nostrils flared as he inhaled deeply, filling his lungs with the odor of food ... and friends. His eyes drifted slowly closed, his hand going limp as he was carried away by sleep.

It was like that all day, Vin would waken, panic, then be soothed back to sleep. He might take a sip of water or broth, if it was offered quickly. Nathan said that it was for the best, that his body needed to heal and sleep was the best possible medicine. He suggested that they send someone for more supplies and a wagon, so that they could take Vin home when he was sufficiently rested and healed. Chris sent Buck, JD and Ezra, telling Ezra he should remain in town now that Vin had been found. He didn't expect any objection, Ezra was a creature of comfort and the tiny cabin wasn't much on amenities. The trio left right away, knowing it would be dark before they reached the town. They also took the remuda so that the others didn't have to expend the time and effort to tend to them. Tiny would sell them, giving the money to the regulators to disburse.

Late in the evening, Vin awoke, managing to get his hands on the bandages around his throat before Nathan was able to stop him. His breath was coming in wheezing, labored gasps, causing all of them to fear that something was dreadfully wrong. It took a while for Chris to get through to him, that he was safe, before Vin would let go of the material. Nathan pushed a cup of herbal tea into Chris's hand, knowing if it came from him that Vin would drink it. Vin did, in spite of the trickles that ran down his chin, finish the entire cup of tea and several swallows of broth before his exhausted body led him back into slumber.

"Do you think he will be all right, Nathan? His breathing sounds worse," Chris worried aloud.

"I'm doing all I know to do for him. He's still breathing, that's the most important thing at the moment. When the swelling goes down, the wheeze should go away."

Vin slept the rest of the night, moving occasionally beneath the blankets. In the morning, his eyes were open when Chris leaned over to check on him. "Hey Vin, didn't know you were awake. Want a drink? I got some fresh, cool water right here," he offered, picking up the cup Nathan had just poured. Vin clenched his jaw, unwilling to take the water. "What is it, Vin? You need to drink this," Chris said, offering the cup again. Vin still refused. It was Chanu who supplied the answer, "You want something to eat?"

"Give him some of that broth if he's hungry," Nathan suggested. Vin scowled. "Your throat ain't gonna be up to much solid food for a while," the healer explained.

"What about some gravy?" Josiah offered. "It isn't much thicker than the broth."

Nathan agreed to allow Vin to try the gravy, warning Chris not to give him too much at a time. It only took part of a coffee cup of the gravy before Vin's eyes slid closed again. It was like that all day, Vin would waken, consume some broth or warm gravy and a few swallows of water, then drift back to sleep. The many scrapes on his body grew warm, making him increasingly uncomfortable. Toward evening, Vin awoke from a nightmare, clawing at his neck, his feet digging into the mattress as he tried to arch away from something. Chanu and Chris grabbed him, pinning him down even as they tried to bring him awake. Finally, Vin went still, his breath coming in rapid gasps.

"We have to get him up, he doesn't like laying flat like this," Chris growled at Nathan. The healer waited, until a glare urged him to begin removing the strips of cloth that bound Vin's head to the wrapped board. Once he was settled against the mattress, Vin's breathing eased. Chris folded his duster, tucking it under Vin's head. Cautiously, the three men sat back, resuming their silent vigil.

Vin slept through most of the night, waking only when he tried to move and the pain caused him to stir. Chris or Nathan were at his side each time, helping him to settle his battered body into a more comfortable position.

Around midday, Josiah heard a wagon coming into the canyon. "Someone's coming!" he called through the open door. Immediately, Chris and Nathan appeared in the doorway and window, weapons trained on the mouth of the canyon where it came around the curved wall. Only after they saw Buck and JD on the bench did they relax, holstering their guns and returning to whatever they had been doing. "It's good to see you!" Josiah said as JD leapt from the wagon.

"Vin?" JD asked hesitantly.

"He's doing better. Nathan took the binding off of his head," Josiah answered. JD nodded and bolted for the cabin to see for himself. "How were things in town?" he asked Buck.

"We didn't talk to anyone except Inez. She sent several jars of soup and some other stuff for the rest of us. We grabbed two mattresses from our rooms and a pile of blankets."

"Good, Nathan wants him out of here as soon as possible."

JD froze at the warning glare Chris gave him, swallowing the words that bubbled up in his throat. He could see that Vin was moaning and moving restlessly on the bed. Nathan's hands gently held him still while he verbally reassured the injured man that he was safe. Finally, Vin sighed, going limp as his breathing deepened with sleep.

"We brought the wagon. It's padded up real good and Inez sent more soup for Vin," JD whispered as he satisfied his curiosity by studying Vin.

Less than an hour later, Vin was loaded in the wagon and they were off. They had discovered Vin's clothing, discarded in a pile with what they assumed to be the clothing of the men who had been killed. The buckskin pants showed wear from Vin having been dragged but they were soft and wouldn't irritate his broken, inflamed skin. Since Vin's shirt was filthy, Chris dressed Vin in one of his. Chris, exhausted from the repeated disturbances in his sleep, sat in the corner of the wagon bed, dozing lightly. Nathan rode on the bench so he could get to Vin quickly if needed. Josiah drove the wagon, letting Buck ride his horse. JD rode Pony, proud that Chris trusted him with the fractious animal.

He was falling! At the end of that fall was the slow, agonizing strangulation death that he feared.

A garbled word broke from Vin's lips as he struggled to roll over. Chris moved, quickly halting the motion while speaking softly to the terrified young man. "It's over, Vin. You're safe now. I've got your back," Chris soothed until he felt the fight go out of Vin's body.

"Up," Vin said softly, the first clearly uttered word since they'd rescued him.

"You want to sit up?" Chris clarified. Vin's head barely moved but it was enough of a nod to be understood. Chris grabbed the pillows he had been leaning against and carefully drew Vin up from the mattresses. Trembling hands closed on his arms as Vin clung to him for support. "I've got you," Chris said softly. Finally, he was able to settle Vin back against the pile of pillows. Nathan nodded toward the laudanum-laced jar of tea. He had poured a few drops of the powerful drug into the quart jar, not enough to knock Vin out but enough to take the sharp edges off of the pain he was in.

Vin turned from the tin cup until he realized that it didn't smell like one of the healer's herbal brews. The liquid was soothing to his throat as he swallowed it and he let go a relieved breath. After the tea, he was offered another tempting cup, this one filled with the potato soup Inez had sent. He managed to get most of it down before sleep dragged him under.

Chris lifted the cup from Vin's hand and poured the last bit over the side of the wagon wall. Nathan nodded in satisfaction at the fact that Vin had taken both fluid and nourishment and was sleeping again.

They rode slowly so as not to jar Vin too much so they wouldn't make it back to town by nightfall. Buck had chosen the place on the way out because of the proximity to water and shade. Josiah halted the wagon under the largest tree and slumped on the bench, as exhausted as Chris and Nathan.

"I'll start a fire and put some water on to boil," JD said as he jumped from the saddle, reaching for Josiah's horse and leading the pair to the river for a drink. Buck untied Nathan's horse from the wagon and led him to the water before going back for the animals on the wagon tongue. Josiah and Nathan got down from the bench and leaned against the wagon bed. It was strangely soothing to see Vin asleep, still propped up by the pillows while Chris stretched out along the wall and slept.

"At least he's resting," Josiah said softly.

With the horses picketed on the grass and a decent meal cooking on the fire, the four men sat and tried to rest. Before long, Nathan's chin touched his chest as his body succumbed to the need for sleep. Josiah was even more obvious, as he had leaned back against a large rock and was snoring loud enough to be heard at the river. Buck and JD quietly moved about the camp, setting the food aside for later and keeping watch over their sleeping friends.

Falling ... falling ... noose closing ... can't breathe ... can't ... must fight to breathe.

Chris stirred at the first small moan, pushing up to his knees as he reached for Vin. He could hear the wheezing, raspy breaths, each one sounding more painful than the next. Grabbing Vin's upper arms, he shook him gently, trying to waken him from the nightmare. "Come on, Vin, wake up now. It's over, you're safe," Chris said.

Blue eyes snapped open and Vin gasped. His entire body shuddered before recognition came and he relaxed. Chris kept hold of him until he nodded, indicating that he was alright.

"Must be some dream," Chris said. His dry attempt at humor succeeded and Vin smiled.

"You got no idea," Vin whispered hoarsely.

"Something to drink?"

"Sounds good," Vin answered, looking eagerly toward the quart jar with the sweet tea inside.

"About time you two woke up. We thought you were gonna sleep round the clock up there on those nice, fluffy mattresses," Buck teased as he rested his elbows on the wagon wall. "Either of you feel up to something to eat? JD has been cooking up a storm."

Vin looked at Buck with such an expression of horror that the mustached man had to let him off the hook. "He's been warming up some of Inez's excellent cooking. You know I wouldn't offer my worst enemy any of JD's cooking!"

"Hey! My cooking's not that bad!" JD protested.

The seven men settled around the fire, Vin resting against Josiah's saddle with pillows to cushion his back. JD stirred the food in the pan and dished it out, along with the biscuits he'd had warming next to the fire. While they were eating, each man took a moment to consider how fortunate they were not to have lost their friend.