Characters: Vin, Chris, Nathan
Walking from the bright sunlight into the gloom of the rundown barn, Vin allowed his eyes to adjust to the difference in light before looking around. The stalls had been built with whatever material had been handy at the time. Thus, they were a mixture of oak, maple and cherry. No two slats were the same color or size. The wood was unfinished, threatening to give anyone who touched it a sliver. There were no barriers on the doors, allowing the horses to stick their heads out into the aisle. He had never seen a more rundown, badly maintained barn in his life.
Vin Tanner disgustedly shook his head at old man White's laziness and led Dakota into the building, away from the beckoning pasture beyond. The fences on the farm were as neglected as the rest of the place. Vin had found the gelding down at the creek. It wasn't a surprise that Dakota had managed to escape. Knowing how poorly White looked after his stock, Vin had been tempted to leave the animal where there was plenty of grass and water. Unfortunately, there was also a mountain lion in the vicinity. Vin had discovered the tracks just that morning.
Constant proximity with horses had left Vin unaffected by the odors associated with the large beasts. Therefore, he was surprised to discover he could smell manure as he walked through the barn. Peeking into one of the stalls, he saw waste spanned the small box from end to end and had to be at least ankle deep. Horrified, Vin was once again tempted to slip Dakota's halter off and free at least one of the poor animals from living in such squalor.
Fighting his conscience, he looked ahead to see what should be a beautiful stallion sticking his head out of one of the stalls. Vin knew if Nettie could see what had become of Lucky, White would find himself on the wrong end of her Spencer carbine. The stallion had once been a magnificent example of a Saddlebred, with the disposition of a gelding. Now he was skin, bones and open sores.
Starting to lead Dakota past the emaciated horse, Vin was surprised when its head flashed in front of him. He heard Dakota scream and felt him jerk on the lead rope. As the large teeth came toward him, Vin pulled back, trying to get out of the way, but it was already too late. Hot breath brushed against his cheek. It felt as though the whole right side of his face was being bitten off.
Vin sank to the ground as the pain overwhelmed him. Horses' screams penetrated the pain induced fog. There was a flash of movement. It took him a few precious moments to realize it was Dakota turning to kick Lucky. By the time the action registered in a section of his brain where he could decipher what was happening, the gelding's hooves were already coming down. One of them landed on Vin's right ankle.
His face on fire,Vin tried to shuffle away from the battle. Cursing the absent White, he buried his concern for Dakota and concentrated on finding his own horse and returning to town where he hoped Nathan Jackson could help him.
Blood dripped down his chin and onto his shirt. As he climbed to his feet, his right leg felt numb from the knee down, but it held his weight, so he was fairly certain nothing was broken.
Relieved when he finally exited the gloomy barn, he squinted against the bright sun and stumbled over to where Peso was tied. Glad it was his right leg rather than his left that had been injured, he slowly mounted. Hoping he wouldn't bleed to death before he reached Nathan, he tapped Peso's sides with his heels.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
When Four Corners' dusty buildings finally came into view, Vin's thoughts turned away from the possibility of dying. Instead, he began to wonder how disfigured he would be. His right cheek and jaw had settled into a dull throb, allowing him a measure of relief from the pain, although not the fear.
Pulling Peso up outside the livery below Nathan's clinic, Vin sat and stared at the steep stairs. He wasn't sure he could dismount, much less climb. A soft sigh of discouragement emptied his lungs.
The cry of distress drew Tanner's attention to the two men running toward him. One was dressed all in black, the other wore a red coat.
"Vin, what happened?" Chris Larabee demanded, resting his hand on his friend's thigh.
Vin stared dazedly at the two men. His mouth was so full of blood he wasn't sure he could answer, even if he had wanted to.
"Ezra, git Nathan," Chris ordered.
"Do you know where he is?"
"He's helping Josiah in the church."
"I shall return with our intrepid healer, posthaste." The fading voice indicated the gambler was departing even as he spoke.
Vin felt a warm hand on his arm, and another wrapped around his waist. Relaxing into the protective grip, he let Chris ease him off his horse. He was surprised when his right leg accepted his weight, but still leaned heavily on his friend as they climbed the staircase to the clinic.
Once inside, Vin pulled back before letting Chris help him onto the bed. His reluctance wasn't because he didn't think he needed the comforting support, it was because he didn't want to get blood all over the blanket. While he wasn't bleeding as badly as he had been, there was still enough to stain whatever he came in contact with.
Thundering footsteps on the wooden planks outside announced Nathan's arrival before the healer made an appearance. Vin felt real fear. How much of his face was gone?
"Vin," Nathan said and settled his patient flat on the bed, "let me look at ya."
Vin tried not to think as Nathan, aided by Chris, Ezra and Josiah, cleaned his face. His stomach churned. He fought the urge to throw up. The fight was in vain. With a soft cry, he pulled away from the helping hands and onto his side. His stomach cramped, purging its contents.
"It's all right, Vin," Nathan placated, holding back his patient's long hair. "Ya swallowed a lot of blood. It's jus' comin' back up."
Embarrassed, Vin lay back on the bed. Needing to know the truth, he mumbled, "How bad is it, Nathan? Feels like the whole right side of m' face has been torn off."
Gently wiping the injured man's sweating brow, Nathan smiled. "Yo'r face is as handsome as ever."
"What happened?" Chris demanded.
Blushing at Nathan's comment, Vin admitted, "Stallion was tryin' t' bite the horse I was leadin'. I got in the way."
"Where was this?"
"Goddamn son-of-a-bitch," Chris swore. "Him and me are goin' to have a discussion on how to take care of stock."
"Think I'll come with you, Brother," Josiah decided. "If your glare isn't enough to make Mr. White see the error of his ways, maybe a reminder of God's love for his four-legged children will set him straight."
"Could always go steal them horses. They c'n only hang me once," Vin offered.
Chris shook his head. "Let me and Josiah see what we can do first."
"You ain't goin' anywhere, Vin Tanner," Nathan softly scolded. "I've gotta stitch ya up."
"I thought ya said m' face was all right!"
"Your face is fine," Nathan confirmed. "Near as I can tell, the horse's teeth caught yo'r bottom lip and tore it from yo'r jaw. I've gotta sew it back on."
Wincing at the ordeal awaiting him, Vin asked, "When ya git a chance, could ya look at m' right leg? After one horse bit me, the other stomped on me."
"Anythin' else I should know?" Nathan growled, helping Vin to sit up so he get the man's pants off.
"Ain't that enough?"
"I would've thought getting' bit in the face was enough."
After the healer gently pulled the tracker's pants off, Vin glanced anxiously at his leg. A slight discoloration in the shape of a hoof indicated where the immoveable object had met the irresistible force. What amazed him was the dent in the flesh just above the ankle.
Nathan cautiously probed the area. "I can't find nothin' broken."
"There's a dent in m' leg," Vin pointed out.
"It's badly bruised," Nathan conceded. "But near as I can tell that's all it is."
"That's all," Nathan confirmed. "Now, let me stitch up that mouth."
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Vin looked in the mirror. Turning his head from side to side, he saw the only visible sign of his ordeal was a small cut on his upper lip. Unless he told them, no one would ever know it had taken twenty-seven stitches inside his mouth to reattach his bottom lip to his jaw. Nor would they know his chin was paralyzed. Considering he'd thought the right side of his face had been torn off, he knew he had been very lucky – certainly much luckier than the horses at White's farm.
The man's fences were badly in need of repair. If Chris and Josiah were unsuccessful in convincing White of the error of his ways, those fences might just fall down. And that latch on Lucky's stall might just break.
This time, Vin would let the animals take their chances with the mountain lion.