The cold wind whistled through the barren trees. Vin shivered, the sound as uncomfortable as the frigid air blowing across the shoulders of his buckskin coat. Fighting dizziness and nausea, he dragged himself to the base of a huge oak tree, hoping its massive trunk would offer protection from the elements. His right leg throbbed painfully from a snakebite, making every move pure agony.
Chris would come.
There was very little in Vin's life that he had been able to depend on. Chris Larabee's friendship had become the one thing he knew he could believe in from the first day he looked across a dusty street.
All he had to do was wait.
Even if Peso's fear didn't take him all the way back to Four Corners, alerting the others that Vin was in trouble, Chris would know. Chris would find him.
He had to be patient. Something he had never been very good at."Mommy," Vin begged, his little hands covering his eyes. "Can I look now?""Not yet."Vin pressed his palms against his face. It was difficult to obey his mother when he was so excited. Last year, he had noticed that Santa Claus only visited those children who already had lots of toys. This didn't seem fair to Vin, but he was sure Santa had a good reason. His mother had told him homes without love had to fill the emptiness with material things. Every time he stopped, Santa had found the Tanner house filled to overflowing. There wasn't room for anything more.Last Christmas Eve, Vin had opened his bedroom window a crack, hoping some of the love would leak out, so Santa Claus would have room to leave him the harmonica he had seen in the General Store. He had spent the night shivering in his bed, too excited to sleep. With the first rays of the sun, he had raced into the main room of the cabin and looked under the tree. There had been nothing there.This year, to protect the heart still aching from that bitter disappointment, he buried his hope, watching as the sun's rays played hide and seek with the shadows in his room. He had been in no hurry to look under the tree until his mother came to his door and told him Santa Claus had left something for a Vin Tanner.Scrambling out of his bed, Vin found himself encircled by his mother's arms. Hugging him to her, she told him he had to wait a few more minutes. Santa wanted her to check to make sure he had left the right gift. He didn't want Vin to be disappointed."Can I look, Momma?" Vin plaintively inquired, shifting impatiently from foot to foot.Her "yes, dear," was accompanied by a muffled cough.Now that his wish had been granted, Vin was almost afraid to drop his hands. After all, Santa Claus had never stopped here before. What if he thought Vin was a girl? Or a baby? Would there be a doll or a rattle waiting for him under the tree? Maybe he should just wait?"Come on, Vin."Gentle hands on his shoulders urged Vin forward."Open your eyes, honey."Taking a deep breath, Vin reluctantly let his hands drop. His heart plummeted when he saw a piece of cloth near the trunk of the tree. Why would Santa think he wanted a rag?"Do you like it, dear?"His mother sounded so wistful, Vin could not bear to break her heart. However, he wasn't a very good liar. Forcing an enthusiasm he didn't feel, Vin reassured, "It's just what I wanted, Mama."When his mother knelt to his level, Vin could see she was frowning."I'm sorry, Vin. I told Santa Claus you wanted a harmonica. I guess I was wrong.""Harmonica?" Vin felt his heart trying to come up through his throat. Stumbling past his mother, he looked closer at the piece of fabric with its bunched edges. In the middle, its silver finish shining in the sunlight, was the mouth organ he had coveted for so long.He had waited a whole year to get it. But it had been worth the wait.
His stomach churned. Bile rose in his throat, seeking an escape. Vin gagged, clamping his lips tightly closed. The sour waste rolled across his taste buds, increasing his nausea. Finally admitting defeat, he leaned over and opened his mouth. Vomit spewed onto the frozen ground. The foul odor wafted up his nostrils, making his stomach cramp until more of its contents sought release.
Sitting up, Vin wished he had the strength to move away. His body was soaked with sweat, making him shiver. How could he be so cold and so hot at the same time? It was becoming a very real possibility he would die of exposure before the snake's venom took him.
He didn't want Chris to find a corpse waiting for him. Vin had never sought death; however, it always seemed to be waiting around the corner for him.It was dark and cold in the tiny closet. Foul odors from countless boys losing control of their bladders permeated the stifling space. The waiting was the hardes,. knowing he was to be punished for his transgression. On occasion, several days without food or water in the almost airless room were enough to satisfy the director of the children's orphanage.Vin knew he would not escape so easily.His crime had been too grave. Theft was not something that could go unpunished. Vin didn't consider it stealing to take back something that was rightfully his, but he knew Sawyer saw it differently. According to the director as soon as Vin walked through the doors of the orphanage, all his possessions, including the harmonica, became the property of those who ran the charity.In desperation, Vin had broken into Sawyer's office, taken his mouth organ and hidden it in a safe place, Vin knew he could never dare go near it in case of discovery. The knowledge that it still belonged to him was enough. When he left this place, it would leave with him.The sound of footsteps on the stairs told Vin his waiting was over. He could tell by the heavy tread that it was Sawyer.The door swung open, crashing against the wall. Light stabbed Vin's eyes, blinding him. A meaty hand fisted his shirt dragging him to his feet."Where is it, boy?"Vin stared mutely into the enraged face. Even if he had wanted to answer, he wasn't sure he had the ability. Dread had him by the throat both literally and figuratively."You might as well tell me where it is and save us both a lot of discomfort."Fighting to get what little air he could into his lungs, Vin stared defiantly into the cruel eyes."Have it yer way, boy."There was an eagerness in the insipid voice that unnerved Vin enough to make him fear for his life. His years with the Kiowa had taught him patience and the value of silence."Kneel."A hand pushed Vin to his knees in front of the railing framing the staircase. A ragged, dirty fingernail tore away the thin fabric of his shirt. Vin shivered as a cool breeze caressed his naked back. Gripping the bars supporting the railing, he waited for his punishment.It wasn't long in coming.
Vin slipped his hand into the pocket of his jacket, fingering the instrument that had cost him so dearly, yet meant more to him than anything he had ever owned. The loose grip involuntarily tightened as his muscles cramped. His limbs shook uncontrollably, the trembling increasing in ferocity. Unable to control his body, he slid sideways, almost landing face first in his stomach contents.
When the convulsion finally abated, he was too weak to move away from the foul substance. Tears of frustration, pain, and fear overflowed his eyes, rolling down his cheeks.
"Please don't keep me waitin' much longer, Chris," he quietly begged.The darkness was so complete Vin was unable to gauge the enemy's position by sight. He lowered his eyelids, knowing his other senses would take over. The scent of tobacco wafted through the air from his right. Careful not to move and reveal his presence to the Yankee soldiers, he listened. Leaves crunched beneath cumbersome boots. The hollow echo as metal met metal made Vin's empty stomach growl as he recognized the sound of a fork or spoon striking a plate.There was nothing he could do until the soft glow of the early morning light revealed his targets. He was under orders to delay the Yanks as long as possible. The Confederates withdrawal was slowed by a large number of wounded.Leaning against a cold rock, high on a hill overlooking the enemy camp, Vin waited. It was a skill as crucial as his ability to shoot. But it didn't come naturally to him. It took every trick the Indians had taught him to persuade his muscles to relax; to clear his mind of the doubt and guilt inevitably accompanying the taking of a life.Blowing quietly into his cupped hands to try to warm them, he was finally compelled to slide them under his armpits. It wasn't safe to be unprepared so close to the enemy, but, he had little choice. Frozen fingers would be unable to tear the packets powder with the speed he would require.The first rays of the rising sun crested the horizon. Rubbing his sleep deprived eyes; Vin slowly stuck the stock of his rifle against his shoulder. He was only twelve and small for his age, the gun was taller than he was and almost outweighed him. He quickly shifted to compensate for the discrepancy as he targeted a soldier exiting a tent in the middle of the camp. The man raised his arms high above his head, stretching to release the kinks from his awakening body.Vin didn't look at his victim's face. He never did. Otherwise he knew they would haunt him for the rest of his life. With practiced skill, he slowly squeezed the trigger.The crack of the gun's discharge echoed around him as Vin shifted to reload. He never saw his target fall. It wasn't necessary, he knew the man was dead.Cries of anger and fear reached his ears as he brought the rifle to bear again. Men milled about searching for the sniper, presenting Vin with numerous targets. Choosing one at random, he fired. By the fifth shot, the soldiers' training finally kicked in and they searched for cover.Realizing his position would soon become vulnerable, Vin picked up his kit and relocated to a rock forty yards to his right. One hand reached for a packet of powder, while the other pulled up the ramming rod. He spit into the barrel, releasing one of the bullets filling his mouth. Putting the stock to his shoulder, he looked through his sight."Pull that trigger and yer a dead man."Vin froze, more out of disbelief than fear. Dropping his right hand, he allowed the left to take the weight of the rifle as he slowly turned. Five men stood behind him, each had his weapon trained on Vin."Drop your gun," ordered the man with three stripes on his sleeve.Reluctantly, Vin complied. He knew he was tired and hungry, but he could not believe these men had gotten the drop on him. His reflexes had deteriorated even more than he realized.The soldier to the sergeant's left armed his rifle. "I say we shoot him."Vin passively stared him down."That would be murder," the sergeant argued, putting a hand on the man's barrel and pushing it down."Whaddya call what he jus' done ta our guys?""His job."The oldest of the men added his support. "He's jus' a boy. I don't hold with killin' no boys.""He should pay fer what he done," the angry soldier insisted."He will," reassured the sergeant. "He'll be waitin' out the rest of the war in a prison camp."
Where was the fire? Blinking his eyes to clear his vision, Vin frantically looked around. He felt as though he was burning up, but there were no flames licking at his aching limbs.
It was so hot he was certain he would suffocate. He frantically slipped his arms from the sleeves of his coat and threw it away from him. It wasn't enough, so he tugged at his shirt. Every button he worked free sapped more of his strength. By the time he reached the last one, he didn't have the energy to pull off the sweat-soaked fabric.
Wheezing, desperate for each mouthful, he pulled in air making his lungs burn. He knew holding his breath was not an option, so he decided to make the inhalations shallower. This helped, but it didn't alleviate the pain entirely.
"Ya better hurry, Cowboy. I can't wait much longer."Vin sat in the hollow of the hill. He would have preferred squatting Indian fashion, but the years of war and the deprivation of the prison camp had taken their toll. Looking down at the teepees, he realized he hadn't been the only one to suffer. There were considerably fewer lodges than there had been when he left, fewer horses – fewer of the People.He waited.If Red Deer was still alive, he would sense Vin's presence and come to find him. Once upon a time, Vin would have been welcomed in the Kiowa camp. The color of his skin would have made no difference. That was before the white man had tried to wipe the People from the face of the earth."So, you did not die in your war.""It wasn't because the Yanks didn't try." Vin shielded his eyes from the sun as he looked up at Red Deer. "I am glad to see you didn't join the Great Spirit, my brother.Red Deer squatted next to Vin. "You have been ill.""I was in a prison camp," explained Vin. "Feeding us was not a priority.""Here it is the same. Although we could feed ourselves if the White Father would let us."The bitterness in Red Deer's voice made Vin's heart ache. These people had raised him. He had never seen himself as their enemy. But the color of his skin said differently. "I can't go home, can I?""It would be too dangerous.""I --""Not for you," interrupted Red Deer, "for us."
Vin sadly regarded the camp below: It held the only family he had known since his mother died. He had gone off to war because he felt it was his duty, not because he believed the cause they were fighting for was just. If he had known what would become of his family, he would never have left."They would say we took you.""I'd tell 'em --""They would kill us before you said a word."Tears filled Vin's eyes. For so many long nights, he had dreamt of coming home. But, like everything else in his life that he had cared about it was being taken away from him."I kept this for you, just as you asked."Shifting his blurred vision to the object in Red Deer's hand, Vin squinted his eyes against the flash of light playing off a metal surface. He had seen enough to realize it was his harmonica. Knowing there was an even chance death would find him on the fields of battle, he had left his most treasured possession with the one person he trusted most in this world.With a trembling hand, he accepted the offering. If anything, it was in better shape than when he had left it in Red Deer's care. "Thank you.""Go in peace, my brother.""May the Great Spirit watch over you and the People, my brother."Rising to his feet, Red Deer whispered, "I believe the Great Spirit has abandoned us."Vin did not contradict his friend. The pitiful numbers of teepees made him wonder if Red Deer was right.
The cold breeze caressed Vin's perspiration soaked skin. He shivered, grateful at first as his burning flesh cooled. A light coating of ice became trapped in the stubble on his face. He pulled his shirt closed and frantically searched for his coat. His unfocused gaze rested on a tan object. He almost wept when he realized how far he had managed to toss it.
Knowing he would die of exposure without it, Vin concentrated on crossing the ground separating him from his goal. His leg twitched as a cramp seized it. A cry of pain escaped chapped lips. His eyes never wavering from the brown blur, he dragged one side of his body a few inches. Allowing himself a short rest, he countered with the other side, blanking his mind to the pain and fear. Any deviation from his path and he would die.With a mixture of amusement and disgust, Vin regarded the dandies exiting the train. Too lazy to ride horses to the buffalo, they had waited inside the plush car until the herd drifted within easy walking distance.Fancy guns in hand, the five men climbed the hill overlooking the valley. It had been Vin's job to find the buffalo. The first part of his duty fulfilled, it was now his responsibility to protect the wealthy thrill-seekers by standing between them and a wounded target."My God," one of the swells whispered, "have you ever seen so many buffalo?"Against his will, Vin's eyes were drawn to the beasts, really seeing them for the first time. He remembered a time when brown, furry bodies filled the valley below. Their numbers so vast they disappeared into the horizon. A small fraction of the once mighty herd now grazed on the succulent blades of grass.The loud retort of a rifle made Vin jump. Its echo was lost as the other guns joined the first. Animal after animal dropped in its tracks, until the frightened creatures stampeded out of range.Walking among the carcasses, Vin put a bullet into the skull of a wounded bull to end his suffering."Do you want to take anything as a memento?" the organizer of the slaughter deferentially inquired, almost bowing to his clients."No," one answered for all of the men, as he headed back to the train. "We got what we wanted."
"Which was what?" Vin silently demanded. There were enough dead buffalo to feed Red Deer's band for a year; enough hides to keep them warm through many winters. These animals had died so some city slicker could go back east and brag about his noble deed. How honorable was it to kill a defenseless creature for no other reason than to show what a great hunter you were?
Feeling sick, Vin leaned over and emptied his stomach. Wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, he took one long last look at the carnage. Guilt and anger gnawing at him, he walked toward his horse.
"Where ya goin', Tanner?" the organizer demanded.
Vin kept walking.
"You gotta find another herd. These men paid for two more days."
A hand snaking into the pocket of his coat, Vin pulled out a money pouch, dropped it on the ground, and continued walking.
When he reached his horse, he mounted. Laying the rein on the gelding's neck, he pressed his heels into his mount's sides. Keeping his eyes focused on the trail ahead, he rode away.
So thirsty he couldn't swallow, Vin sucked on a blade of grass, taking what little moisture it offered. It wasn't enough to wet the inside of his mouth, much less slake his thirst.
Laying his head on the frozen ground, he closed his eyes, but it only made his unsettled stomach churn more. Reopening them, he stared up at the gray sky. White flakes drifted down. Several landed on his cheek. They melted as soon as they touched his hot flesh. He welcomed the coolness, even though he realized it would hasten his demise.
"Can't last much longer, Cowboy."
Vin turned the rabbit on the spit, allowing the flames to cook the meat. Charred flesh showed on the visible side of his meal. His mouth watered in anticipation. He couldn't remember the last time he'd had a hot meal. RJ Spenser had been difficult to capture, but he had been no match for Vin's superior skills.
Bringing in this particular bounty had been twice as satisfying to Vin. The man deserved to hang. He had raped a mother and her teenage daughter. In the process, the heartless drifter killed the husband who had been trying to protect his family. Vin almost wished he could put the rope around the unrepentant murderer's neck himself.
Unable to wait any longer, Vin cut some meat from the cooked portion of the rabbit. Blowing on it to make it cool faster, he popped it into his mouth. While his empty stomach greeted the slice with enthusiasm, Vin's taste buds longed for some salt and pepper. Once he collected the bounty, he could afford to indulge in a few luxuries, maybe even buy flour for biscuits.
"When do I git some of that?" Spenser demanded.
Vin didn't bother to answer. Taking a strip of beef jerky from his saddlebag, he tossed it to the bound fugitive.
Throwing it on the ground, Spenser growled, "I ain't breakin' my teeth on no jerky while you git rabbit."
"Suit yerself." Vin cut off another piece of the succulent meat. Waving it around on the end of his knife to cool it, he touched it with a callused finger before popping it into his mouth.
"Hey," protested Spenser, pulling at the ropes binding him.
Quietly and swiftly, Vin pounced on his prisoner, laying the edge of the knife against the vulnerable throat. "I ain't wastin' good food on vermin who ain't got no respect fer women. You say another word and I'll cut out yer tongue."
The knife scraped flesh as the Adam's apple bobbed under the sharp blade. Spenser's eyes were wide with fear.
"We understand each other?" pressed Vin.
Spenser's mouth opened and immediately closed. He carefully nodded acknowledging his agreement. Shaking hands reached for the jerky.
Sheathing his knife, Vin returned to the fire. One lesson he had learned in the prison camp was serving him well in his present occupation: intimidation produced cooperation.
The pressure around his injured leg was unbearable. His arms trembling so violently they could barely hold him, Vin pushed up to a sitting position. His vision blurred as he teetered on the edge of consciousness. Desperately, he pulled cold air into empty lungs.
Slowing his breathing until the black dots in front of his eyes faded, Vin pulled up his left pant leg until he could reach into his boot. Taking out the knife strapped to his calf, he poked the tip into the leather covering his right thigh. Blood seeped from the small hole, indicating he had pushed too hard. With more care, he ran the blade down the length of the pant leg.
As the separating fabric revealed his injured limb, he saw it was badly swollen. The flesh was black near the puncture wound, purple farther away. Vin shuddered. Even if he lived, there was a fair chance he would end up with a permanent limp or possibly lose the leg. Collapsing onto the hard ground, he realized his future didn't look very bright.
"I think I waited too long, Chris."
The ground beneath Vin shook. He had heard of something called an earthquake where the earth vibrated hard enough to knock down trees and buildings. It seemed as though he should be afraid, but he wasn't. Maybe because it felt the same as a herd of horses riding hard and fast? Except, there was no reason for riders to be in such a hurry, no reason at all.
Consciousness slipped away.
+ + + + + + +
The ground beneath him had become soft and the air around him warm, making Vin wonder if he was in heaven. It felt like heaven. But he had been certain the actions he had done in his life would deny him entrance to that glorious place. He had known for a long time that fire and brimstone awaited him at the end of his life's journey. His only regret was he would never see his mother or his friends again.
"I think he's comin' around."
The familiar voice puzzled Vin. Of all the people he knew, Nathan Jackson was the least likely to follow him into Purgatory. The healer's good deeds far outnumbered his sins.
It was not quite so difficult to imagine Chris Larabee joining him in Hell. But the God Vin believed in would never be so cruel as to separate Chris from his beloved wife and son for eternity.
"Open your eyes, Vin."
This was one man, one voice, even God could not ignore. When his mother died, Vin had been certain God had forsaken him. Josiah Sanchez had started to make him believe otherwise.
"It is most unlike you, Mr. Tanner, to persist in causing us distress."
Of all his friends, Ezra Standish was the one most people believed would end up in Hades. Ezra even believed it himself. Vin knew better. Ezra had done a few things that warranted a reckoning, however his generosity of spirit would save him from joining the dregs of humanity.
"Come on, Slick, we know yer in there."
Now Vin knew he could not be in Hell. The devil could never abide such a cheerful soul such as Buck Wilmington in his home.
"Vin, Peso made it home all right."
Trust JD Dunne to alleviate the worry nagging Vin. The boy was young and naïve to the ways of the West, his understanding of people – well of men, Vin mentally corrected, as the Easterner still had a long way to go when it came to appreciating women - belied his years.
A warm hand gently squeezed Vin's shoulder, demanding his attention. It was the last confirmation needed to convince him he was in Nathan's infirmary.
"I know yer awake, Vin. Don't keep us waiting."
Of course Chris would know. Slowly lifting the weights attached to his eyelids, Vin's lips curved into a gentle smile. "Hey, Cowboy."
There was a crack in the gunslinger's voice. It was so slight, Vin was sure no one else heard it. "I was holdin' on fer ya."
"We got there as quick as we could," explained Chris. "There was just enough snow to follow Peso's tracks back to ya."
"But not so much they got covered," JD added.
A sharp pain reminded Vin of his ordeal. "My leg?"
"It's still there," Nathan quickly reassured. "It's gonna take a while ta heal and ya may have a limp, but ya didn't lose it."
"Thanks, Nate," said Vin.
"Weren't nothin' I did. Yer jus' too stubborn ta die."
"Amen," Josiah reverently whispered.
A beam of sunlight streaming through the window reflected off something in Chris' fisted hand. Curious, Vin asked, "What's that?"
Following the tracker's gaze, Chris opened his fingers. Lying on the callused palm was Vin's harmonica. "You were holding this when we found you."
Vin remembered holding the knife and cutting his pant's leg. He couldn't remember when he exchanged the weapon for the one thing in his life that had always given him hope and comfort.
"I'll put it here on the table fer ya," Chris offered.
"No!" His normally raspy voice roughened by exhaustion, Vin pleaded, "Would ya take care of it fer me until I'm better?"
Slipping the instrument into his jacket pocket, Chris nodded. The horror and trust in that request was not lost on Chris. "I'll have it when you want it back."
"I know ya will."
Nathan crossed the room. "It's gettin' a bit stuffy in here. Reckon I'll open the window a mite."
For a second time, Vin gasped a desperate, "No!"
Six sets of startled eyes flew to Vin's face. He didn't want to explain himself: Vin simply didn't want any of the love in the room to escape. He had waited long enough to find it again.