Authors' Note: This story follows the events in the story "This Side of the Grave," as well as "Tangled Web." You don't have to read these stories to follow this one, but it'll help in places.
The character of Crecencio is borrowed from the 1993 TV series Ned Blessing: My Life and Times . The character was played by Luis Avalos.
Warning: Suggestions and discussion of child abuse.
"Vin!" JD called, stopping the tracker before he could step off the boardwalk and cross the street to the saloon.
Tanner turned, waiting for the youngest member of their group to reach him before he asked, "What's wrong, JD?" He frowned with worry, his gaze scanning the street for any signs of trouble, but there was nothing going on that he could see, just townsfolk going about their daily business.
"You got a telegram from Judge Travis," Dunne told him excitedly, digging into his pocket and then holding it out for the tracker to take.
Vin's frown grew deeper as he accepted the folded piece of paper from JD. "Uh, thanks," he said, sliding it into a pocket of his hide coat.
"Aren't you going to see what it says?" JD asked him, surprised.
"Later," Vin replied, turning and heading across the street toward the saloon before the younger man could press him on it.
"Later?" JD wondered out loud, then shook his head. Well, it was Vin's business; maybe it was something he'd been waiting for Travis to contact him about. With a shrug and a shake of his head the young sheriff headed for the jail.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Vin stepped into the saloon and glanced around, letting his eyes adjust to the dimly lit interior. Ezra was playing poker with three men who'd come in to town on the stage earlier that morning. From the smile on the gambler's face, he was having no trouble relieving the travelers of their cash.
Buck was standing at the bar, his back to Tanner, his head bent to the side as he talked softly to the newest working girl. Gauging from the smile on her face, Buck was going to end up just as lucky as Ezra before the day was over.
In the back, at his usual table, was Larabee, nursing a shot of whiskey while he read a book. Tanner didn't envy most men, but he did envy Larabee his learning, his ability to read. Granted, he was learning, little by little, but he was nowhere close to opening a book and reading it the way Chris did. Vin knew each book contained new worlds and adventures that could come to life through words; it was magical. Normally the blond would be sitting out on the boardwalk, reading while the townsfolk went about their business, but it was already uncomfortably hot by mid-day now, so Larabee had taken to sitting in the saloon after the sun peaked for the day.
Tanner crossed the room and stopped, standing at the table, waiting. Chris looked up at him and gave him a slight nod; he was open to the interruption. Vin sat, then reached into his coat pocket and pulled out the telegram, sliding it across the table to Larabee.
The blond closed his book and set it aside, then picked up the piece of paper and opened it. Hazel eyes rounded slightly and he looked over at Tanner and smiled. "That's great news, Vin."
Tanner's lips disappeared into a fine line and he looked down at the tabletop as he said, "JD said it was from the judge. I didn't read it."
Chris understood. The tracker hadn't wanted to know if it was bad news. He looked down at the telegraph again. "Looks like Orin's work paid off. A judge from San Antonio is willing to give you a pardon for Kincaid's murder."
Vin felt the breath he'd been holding rush out his lungs like he'd been punched hard in the belly. He hadn't believed Travis could pull it off, even with the statements he had from three of Eli Joe's gang, all of them with firsthand knowledge that Eli Joe had murdered Jess Kincaid to throw Vin off his trail in the Panhandle a couple of years back.
"The authorities in Texas want you and Travis to meet with this judge… in Tascosa," Chris said, then looked up, adding, "next month."
Vin felt the blood drain from his face, but he nodded. This was the best shot he had to clear his name, and he knew he'd have to take it, but the thought of riding back to Tascosa sent chills racing down his back. He had a lot more to lose now, more than before, when he'd been alone in the world.
He trusted Travis, though, or at least he hoped he could. If this Texas judge changed his mind for some reason… No, he wouldn't think like that. Travis was a federal judge, well respected and knowledgeable in the law. If he'd found a judge who could help him, he'd just have to trust it was true and go.
To be a free man again…
The risk was worth that. Vin blew out a breath and leaned back in his chair, folding his arms over his chest. "Reckon 'm finally gonna make that trip t' Tascosa."
Larabee nodded. "Guess I'll finally see how 'lively' that little sheep-town really is."
Vin looked surprised. "Y' don't have t' go."
"I know," Larabee replied, hazel eyes intense as he stared at the younger man. "Want to."
"Appreciate it," Vin said quietly, relief unknotting the muscles in his shoulders. He'd feel a whole lot better about the trip if Chris was riding along with him.
Larabee just nodded and reached for his book.
Vin reached out and took the telegram back, returning it to his pocket and wondering how the hell he was going to get to Tascosa in time.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
That evening the seven men who kept watch on Four Corners celebrated Tanner's good news with a shared meal at the saloon, Inez keeping their plates full until they begged for mercy. Then, laughing, she took their plates and the leftovers away, then brought them cups and a pot of fresh coffee, although it was the shot-glasses that were filled with whiskey first.
"This is great," JD said, grinning. "You're finally gonna be a free man, Vin."
"Hope so, JD," Tanner replied, still not sure he believed it would happen.
"You think this judge might change his mind?" Nathan asked the tracker.
Vin shrugged, not surprised the healer had seen his unease. Nathan was a very observant man. "Don't know who it is; don't know what t' think. Travis seems t' trust 'im, so I reckon I'll have to."
"Trust is one thing, action's another, which is why I'll be going along," Chris told them.
"Think I'll ride along, too," Josiah said, then added, "if you wouldn't mind the company."
Chris glanced at Vin.
Tanner thought for a moment, then he met Sanchez's eyes and said, "I'd appreciate the company, J'siah. Thank you." He looked from the older man to Chris and back. "But I don't want either 'a ya hangin' next t' me if it goes sour. Understand?"
Buck grinned. "Hell, Vin, the three of you should be able to shoot your way out of any trouble in a tiny little town like that."
"Yes, it isn't like you haven't seen how it might be done right here in this 'tiny little' community," Ezra added. "Of course, it would be easier if more of us accompanied you."
"You volunteering?" Nathan challenged the gambler, his expression making his incredulity obvious.
"I did not say that, Mr. Jackson," Standish countered, but he flashed them his gold tooth as he added, "But a temporary change of scenery could do me good."
"Given how you took those three men for everything they had, I can see why you'd say that," Buck teased him, grinning.
Vin shook his head. "Don't reckon that judge would be happy t' see a whole gang show up with me."
"Vin's right," Josiah said, expression thoughtful. "Might give the wrong impression."
"Me and Josiah will go with Vin," Chris said, ending the speculation. "We run into trouble, we'll handle it. Besides, Travis will be there."
"You run into trouble, you head for Mexico," Buck added with a grin. "We'll meet you down there."
The others laughed, but they knew trouble was a real possibility.
Vin was just grateful he wouldn't be going alone. He trusted Travis, but the judge was a man of the law. If things went sideways, Chris and Josiah would do all they could to see to it they got out of Tascosa alive, and that was all he could ask. He just hoped they didn't all end up at the end of a noose before it was over.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
The following day it was decided that Vin, Chris, and Josiah would make their way to Tascosa via train. Given the deadline the Texas judge had given them, there was no way they could ride the entire way in time. To their surprise, Ezra provided them with tickets.
"Yes, well, I'm just putting my most recent winnings to good use," he told them, trying to look impassive.
"You feelin' poorly?" Nathan asked the gambler. "What happened to you savin' to buy the saloon?"
"This won't put my plans to buy the saloon back by more than a month, maybe two," Standish stated haughtily. "Especially if we have more visitors like the three gentlemen who are funding this expedition."
"Thanks, Ezra," Vin told him, honestly grateful for the man's unusual generosity.
"Yes, well, stay out of trouble," the gambler told him. "That will be repayment enough."
"Be a first, too," Buck added.
"At least you aren't going," JD teased the ladies' man.
Buck wagged his eyebrows at the sheriff. "A shame, ain't it? All those poor ladies in Tascosa, deprived of my company…"
"The ladies will be spared, and a pardon for Mr. Tanner should lessen the threats here at home from wayward bounty hunters and overzealous lawmen," Ezra added.
"Let's just get this over with," Tanner said, shaking his head. It was a good thing Chris and Josiah were quiet on the trail. If they chattered like Buck and Ezra he'd have to shoot them before they got halfway to Tascosa.
Standish reached out and rested his hand lightly on Tanner's arm. "Good luck, my friend."
Tanner met his eyes and nodded his thanks.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
The following day, the three men took the stage from Four Corners to Tucson, where they caught the Southern Pacific Sunset Line from Tucson to El Paso. Once in Texas, they transferred to the Golden State Route, which took them up to northern New Mexico Territory. Once there, they rented horses and headed into the Panhandle, following the Canadian River toward the east.
The weather was just as hot, but more humid than it had been in Four Corners. Lucky for the three peacekeepers thunderstorms roiled up nearly every afternoon, sweeping over them and soaking them to the skin with blinding downpours.
There were few places the three men could find to escape the weather. They couldn't use the gullies or canyons cut by the river or the creeks that fed it, since they flooded following the hard rains. As a result, they usually found themselves crouching next to rocks, trying to hold on to their horses' reins as the storms poured down on them once or twice a day. It cooled them off, but none of them enjoyed getting soaked like that.
Once the storms passed, the heat returned, drying them reasonably quickly. Still, it wasn't the most pleasant of trips. Vin and Chris could ride for hours in companionable silence. Josiah asked occasional questions and told a story now and again, but mostly he rode silently, or carried on a soft, muttered conversation with God as they rode along.
As the men drew closer to Tascosa they continued to ride through mesquite, sage, and shin oaks scattered across the land. But now, mixed in with the trees and bushes were scattered pastores – small communities of Mexican sheepherders. The usual pastore, they noticed, consisted of several houses, all of them built out of thin, flat, native sandstone and held together by adobe mortar. The walls of these houses must be eighteen inches thick, and each contained a distinctive beehive-shaped adobe hearth.
As they passed by one of the communities a little closer than the others Vin pointed out the irrigation ditches that had been dug to divert water from nearby creeks and springs to cultivate gardens, which were thriving, thanks to the addition of regular rain. The people in the pastore watched them pass, curious but not hostile.
Sheep corrals, also made of sandstone, were erected near most of the homes. The rains meant plenty of graze for the sheep as well, and they were fat and plentiful.
Larger trees – elm, hackberry, cottonwood, and oak – grew in the river bottoms, but the land was generally miles and miles of relatively level grassland, broken only by the Canadian River and its numerous intermittent tributaries. The tracker kept them well away from the river itself, which was plagued by quicksand.
In response to one of Josiah's questions, Vin told them about Casimero Romero, who had brought his sheep up from New Mexico Territory to what had become known as Tascosa by the time the tracker had been forced to flee the town to escape a murder charge. The only other communities of any size in the Panhandle were Mobeetie and Clarendon, the three small outposts of humanity – carved from the former Bexar Land District – were now new Texas counties. Once that change was finalized, Tascosa would get itself a sheriff, but for now there was no official law in the small community.
"Not sure that's a good thing or a bad thing," Josiah said, considering the pros and cons of the situation as they rode along.
Vin shrugged. "They take care 'a their own, but it's the ranchers who really make the law out here."
"And the more men like James who come, the muddier it'll get," Chris said.
Thunder rumbled in the distance once again and the tracker led them away from one of the many tributaries he suspected would flood after the storm. They were all getting damn tired of being wet, but at least the storms cooled the air for a few hours after they were over, and for that they were grateful.
As they waited for the storm to hit, Vin noticed that there were more cattle in the area than he remembered, and he suspected that trend would continue; men like James were drawn to range like this. The fine, sandy loam and caliche soils weren't good for farming, so it was sheep and cattle that provided livelihoods for the growing towns in the Panhandle.
After the buffalo hunters had killed off the bison, and the Red River War had driven the last of the Comanche, Kiowa, and Southern Cheyenne Indians onto reservations in Indian Territory, the area around Tascosa had been ripe for cattlemen to begin to push out the sheep farmers, most of whom were Mexicans. It would probably get a whole lot uglier before it was finally over, and Tanner had no desire to stay and see it happen. He didn't care much for sheep, or for cattle, and he cared even less for cattlemen.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
It was just after mid-day, a couple of days later, that Vin pulled up his rented gelding and jerked his chin toward the east. "We made it."
The small town of Tascosa sat on the north side of the Canadian River, nestled in a grove of trees, at a curve in the riverbed.
"Town's the only good passage 'cross the river fer miles in either direction," Vin told them. "Reckon that's why it's there."
Chris could appreciate that, but the ford itself was in a favorable spot on the landscape as well. As someone who had worked the land and raised stock he could see the advantage in the wide, grassy valley that flowed from the open plains of the vast Llano Estacado to the south. Across the river, a similar but smaller valley climbed toward the rolling grasslands of northern Texas and on to Kansas. The north valley provided a natural trail, a gradual slope upward to the plains beyond. It was an almost level path, in contrast to the steep hills and bluffs of the Canadian breaks that spread for a dozen or more miles along the reddish ribbon of water. No wonder the area was drawing the attention of cattle rangers. They would be able to drive their herds right up the natural corridor to railheads in Kansas.
Vin sighed sadly. "Y' should 'a seen this place b'fore… These valleys an' the ford used t' draw in the buffalo by the thousands – land black with 'em fer as far as y' could see… 'til the hunters killed 'em off."
"You were one of them," Chris said rather than asked.
"Didn't want t' be, surely didn't; wasn't given a choice in the matter," Vin told them, his tone sad. That was a story for another day, one when he'd had too much whiskey.
"It must have been quite a sight to see; the land covered in buffalo as far as you could see," Josiah agreed, picturing it in his mind's eye.
The three men sat on their horses, each lost in his own thoughts for a moment.
"Not much to it, is there?" Chris said, his gaze shifting, sweeping over the town.
"Nope," Vin agreed.
The small community was scattered among elms and cottonwoods. A wide, sandy street led past twice as many residences than Vin remembered, as well as a general store, blacksmith shop, hotel, restaurant, livery stable, and a small number of shops offering everything from fresh-baked bread to saddles and bridles. There were three saloons as well. The houses were sod- and pole-roofed adobe buildings, a single story tall. In many ways it reminded them of Four Corners, with a lot more shade.
They crossed the river just as thunder began to rumble overhead. "East end 'a town's called 'Hogtown,'" Vin told them, looking at Chris with a small grin. "That's the lively part."
Larabee looked and guessed that the cluster of small houses in the flats behind the saloons and a mercantile would be where the whores, gamblers, and saloon workers lived. They entered the west end of town, passing Mexican craftsmen and laborers, as well as drifters, cowboys, and local business men and their wives and children.
North of Hogtown stood a large adobe home, which belonged to the town's founder. There were also smaller homes near the large structure, where Vin explained several Mexican families lived. They worked the hay meadows and orchards that belonged to Romero. A small wagon yard had been added to the town since Tanner had been there last.
They rode over a footbridge that spanned Tascosa Creek and headed for the hotel. By the time they arrived it had started to rain, the sprinkle quickly beginning to pour when lightning forked across the clouds.
Travis stepped out onto the boardwalk in front of the building, waving, letting them know he was there, then he stepped back inside, waiting until they joined him in the lobby before he said, "Good to see you boys. I was getting worried you might have run into some trouble."
"No trouble but the weather," Chris told him. Like Four Corners, Tascosa obviously had to deal with short, powerful storms over the summer months.
Another man had stepped up to join them. He was around Travis' age, but taller and thinner, his hair a mix of black and silver-grey. The man's dark eyes were sharp and he sported a hook nose that gave him a severe look.
"Boys, this is Judge Nathaniel Trivett," Travis said. "Nathaniel, this is Josiah Sanchez, Chris Larabee, and Vin Tanner."
"Gentlemen," Trivett said, shaking each man's hand in turn. Then he gestured and man wearing a Texas Ranger badge stepped up to join them. "This is Ranger Cordell Norris. Ranger, this is Vin Tanner, please take him into custody."
The Ranger stepped up to Vin. He was the same height as the tracker, but nearly twice as wide. His brown hair was a little shorter than Vin's, and his brown eyes sprouted deep crows' feet at the temples. "Vin Tanner, you're under arrest for the murder of Jess Kincaid."
"What the hell is this?" Larabee demanded, his hand twitching toward his Colt.
Travis looked a little chagrined as he explained, "It's just the way the law has to work, Chris. Vin will be placed under arrest, and taken to the jail. Tomorrow we'll hold a bench trial and I'll enter the affidavits I have into the official record."
"Just a formality, I assure you," Trivett explained, holding up his hand to placate the three men. "I've seen the statements Judge Travis has, and I know Eli Joe's ilk far too well. I'm happy to exonerate Mr. Tanner, but it must be done properly." He looked at Vin. "I'm sorry, son, but you'll only be in jail one night."
Chris looked ready to argue, but Vin nodded, and carefully handed Josiah his Mare's Leg.
Trivett nodded to Norris and the Ranger took hold of Tanner's arm and led him out of the lobby. The two men hurried through the rain to the south end of McMasters Street where the Tascosa jail sat.
Vin snorted softly as they entered the little adobe shack. It hadn't changed any since the last time he'd been there. As a jail, the structure was a joke. A schoolboy could escape if he had half a mind to do so.
Norris guided the tracker into the single cell and closed the door behind him. "Tanner, I know you broke out of this cell once before, so I'll need yer word you'll stay put 'til ya see the judge tomorrow."
"Y' got m' word," Vin told him.
Cordell Norris nodded, satisfied with that. "I'll see to it yer brought food an' water."
"Appreciate that, Ranger."
The man nodded. "The state 'a Texas owes you an' yer friends our thanks for killin' that snake, Eli Joe. Shame y' got yerself caught up with that skeesick."
Tanner nodded. "'M just sorry Kincaid ended up dead. Never met the man, but I reckon he was a decent sort."
"Yep," Norris replied, nodding. "The judge already held a community meetin' t' let the folks here know what really happened. The people hereabouts liked Kincaid, but y' won't meet any trouble here."
Vin nodded again, feeling better. "Kincaid's kin, they's clear on this, too?"
"Only a couple of 'em left, t' be honest. They were the first t' tell the judge they's satisfied justice has been served."
Vin felt the tension slip from his shoulders and he dropped down to sit on the small cot in the cell. "Never thought I'd live t' see this day," he said quietly, shaking his head.
The Ranger nodded his understanding. "Well, once y' got the papers, Rangers can always use another good man."
Vin flashed him a grin. "Found a place t' call home," he explained, "reckon I'll see where that leads me."
"Well, good luck t' ya, then," Norris said. "I'll be back with that food an' water."
"Vin?" Josiah called, stepping to the jail.
"It's all good, J'siah," Tanner told the former priest when the big man leveled a glower on the Ranger.
Norris tipped his hat to the two men and left.
"You all right?" Josiah asked, walking over to sit down in one of the two chairs in the office space.
"Fine," Tanner replied, leaning back against the adobe wall.
"Trivett sounds like he and Travis have it all worked out. There's even a couple of newspaper men here to cover the trial tomorrow."
"Like Steele?" Tanner asked, pulling a face.
"More like Mary," Josiah assured him.
Vin shrugged. "Hell, ain't really news."
"Travis wanted to make sure the word went out, let lawmen and bounty hunters in other states and Territories know you're no longer a wanted man."
Tanner hadn't thought of that, and he was grateful Travis had. "It's really happening, ain't it…"
"It surely is, Vin, it surely is."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Josiah stayed with Vin until the Ranger returned with a tray of food. Chris came in with the lawman, carrying a pitcher full of water. The blond had a scowl on his face.
"Y' look like they're plannin' on lockin' y' up in here with me," Tanner teased the blond as he accepted the tray from the Ranger.
Larabee shot Tanner a glare, then looked to Josiah and said, "Go grab some food. I'll stay with him."
Sanchez nodded and left with the Ranger.
Larabee looked back at Vin, who was sitting on his cot, eating the meal that had been fixed for him. He carried the pitcher over and handed it in past the bars to Tanner, then gave him a tin cup from his coat pocket. "Damn newspaper men," he muttered.
"Bad as Mary?" Vin asked, a little amused.
"Worse," Chris replied with a scowl. "At lease she can be made to see sense." The blond huffed out a breath and shook his head as if to clear his temper. "They think you're quite the story."
Tanner made a face, but he didn't let the news slow him down. He was hungry. "Just do me a favor," he said around a bit of mashed potatoes and gravy.
"Guard the door an' keep 'em out 'a here. I'd hate t' end up swingin' 'cause I shot one 'a 'em."
That made the blond smile. "I'll try. You cotton to this situation?"
Vin paused for a moment, holding Larabee's eyes before he nodded. "Travis trusts the judge; I trust Travis. Nothin' else t' do."
Chris nodded. "Okay."
"Y' eat yet?"
Larabee shook his head.
"Go, find some chuck an' get some shuteye."
"You sure? I can bed down here."
Tanner shook his head. "No need. Norris said he'd be back; be here overnight. I'll see y' in the mornin'. Best y' get some sleep in case it goes t' hell fer some reason."
Larabee chuckled but nodded. "Given who we're talking about, that's a real possibility."
"Like trouble never finds your stubborn ass, Larabee."
Chris flashed the tracker a grin. "Think I'll go grab a drink… not being locked up and all."
Tanner muttered something the blond was sure was obscene, but he touched his finger to the brim of his hat and left.
A few minutes later Ranger Norris returned to the jail, settling in with a deck of cards and playing Solitaire while Tanner pulled his hat down over his eyes and went to sleep.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Later that night
A hiss, followed by a scuffing sound brought Vin out of sleep. He peered into the darkness, catching sight of Ranger Norris sprawled on the floor, unmoving. The tracker's heartbeat quickened.
"I'm going to open the cell door," a voice told him. "Step out and hold out your hands, or I'll slit the Ranger's throat. Understand?"
"Yeah," Vin said, frowning as a man stepped forward from the darkness and unlocked the door using the Ranger's keys. "Who are ya?"
"Shut up and get out here," the man snarled, stepping back so he was next to Norris. The man held a gun in one hand and a knife in the other.
Vin pushed the cell door open and stepped out. He held out his hands, hoping the Ranger wasn't already dead. The stranger set the knife on the desk and picked up a pair of shackles, which he tossed to Tanner.
"Put one on your right wrist," he ordered, holding his gun on the tracker. Vin did as he was told, knowing it was unlikely the man could miss at this range.
"Turn around and put your hands behind your back," the man ordered as soon as the shackle clacked closed.
Once again, Vin did as he was told. The man secured his hands behind his back, then gave the tracker a shove and Tanner stumbled toward the door.
Hoping Chris and Josiah might be outside, waiting to stop this from happening, Vin stepped forward, but he knew that was unlikely.
The man grabbed the back of Vin's shirt collar and held him while he opened the door a crack and peered out into the darkness.
"Y' one 'a Kincaid's kin?" Vin asked quietly.
The stranger brought the butt of the gun he held down on the back of Vin's head, making the tracker see stars. "I said shut up, ya half-breed bastard," he hissed.
They moved out into the darkness. The man marching Vin around to the back of the jail where a horse-drawn wagon waited for them.
"Get in the wagon bed," the man ordered, giving Tanner a hard shove.
Vin crawled onto the bed, his head throbbing from the clubbing. There were four barrels lashed to the front of wagon, two on each side. The man kicked Vin out of his way – the tracker feeling at least one rib snap as a result – and walked to one of the barrels. He pried the top off, then turned and grabbed Vin's shirt, dragging him to his feet. The sudden movement prompted a gasp from the tracker as a fiery pain exploded in his side.
"Get in the barrel," the man growled, giving Tanner a rough shake, an explosion of popping lights erupting in front of the tracker's eyes as his head and ribs throbbed with equal agony.
It took a bit, and the stranger had to help him, but Vin was finally able to climb into the empty container.
"Get down," the man snarled, shoving Tanner down with his hand on the tracker's shoulder.
Vin bent his knees and pulled in on himself, trying to avoid the man's touch, which made his rib scream in rejoinder. "Look, I didn't kill Jess Kincaid."
"I don't give a damn about Jess Kincaid," the man snarled back at him, shoving the gun into the barrel and pointing it at Vin's face.
"Then why're y' doin' this?" Tanner demanded, anger pushing good sense aside.
"You did kill a man, just not the one you're worried about," the stranger hissed before leaning over and sliding the top back onto the barrel. He nailed it down in place, effectively imprisoning the tracker.
When he finished securing the lid, Vin could hear the man shift onto the wagon seat and, a few moments later, the two horses started off down the sandy street.
"Hey!" Tanner yelled, but he knew the sound would be muffled so much no one would be able to hear him unless they were in the wagon with him. Besides, drawing in a breath to yell hurt like hell so he abandoned the idea after the first try.
Struggling to find a comfortable way to sit in the small space, Vin closed his eyes, trying to ignore the pounding ache in his head. He floated close to the edge of unconsciousness and how long they traveled, he wasn't sure.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Early the next morning
Josiah opened the door to the jail, his gaze immediately drawn to Ranger Norris, who was struggling sluggishly to sit up on the floor. He hurried over to the man roaring, "Chris!" at the same time.
Larabee rushed into the jail, followed closely by Travis. "What happened?" the blond demanded, taking in the situation at a glance.
"I'm not sure," Josiah said, helping Norris into a seated position.
"Ah, some son of a bitch came in last night, said he was a newspaper man," Norris grumbled. "He hit me with something."
"He took Vin, too, from the looks of things," Josiah added, nodding toward the empty cell.
"Unless this is yer plan," Norris growled at Larabee.
"Hell no!" Chris replied, glaring down at the lawman. "We're here to get Vin's pardon."
"Could it have been one of Kincaid's family?" Josiah asked, hoping to stop an argument between Larabee and Norris. Vin didn't need the two men at odds with one another, not now.
"No," the Ranger said, shaking his head. "Only ones left are a couple 'a women an' three little ones, all under ten."
"Then who?" Travis asked, looking from Josiah to Chris.
Both men shook their heads, the former priest helping Norris to his feet.
"Take me outside," the Ranger said. "I might be able t' pick up a trail."
"I'll go talk to Judge Trivett," Travis said.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Outside, the Ranger examined the ground as the sky lightened. They slowly made their way to the back of the jail. "Looks like a man put Tanner in a wagon. They headed out 'a town."
"Can you track them?" Chris asked the Ranger.
"I'm damn sure gonna do m' best," the lawman replied. "Get your horses, an' whatever supplies y' want. We'll meet back here in a quarter-hour. Once the rains get here, the tracks'll disappear."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Vin wasn't sure if he'd fallen asleep, or if the pain in his side and his head had gotten so bad he'd passed out, but when he came around the wagon had stopped moving. He could hear the stranger climbing into the back of the wagon.
"Hey!" Vin yelled. "Who are ya?"
A moment later the top of the barrel was pried off and the stranger looked down at Vin, his expression angry and excited at the same time. "All these years," the man said, a predatory snarl on his face. "I thought you might be dead, but, no, here you are, about to be pardoned for murder."
"I didn't kill Jess Kincaid!" Vin hollered. Given the sun overhead, the tracker knew it was nearing mid-day. With luck, Chris and Josiah were already looking for him. The Ranger, too.
"I don't know if you did or didn't, and I don't care. You are responsible for the death of Jubal Mathers."
"Who?" Vin asked, not immediately recognizing the name.
"Who!?" the man nearly screamed, spittle flying from his lips. "Who?! You goddamn, worthless half-breed! Jubal Mathers took you in! You and those other worthless captives; worthless heathens ! Your hearts were red, even if your skins were white!"
Vin felt the blood drain from his face, his skin turning icy cold. Jubal Mathers… He hadn't heard that name more than once or twice. He and the other boys at the orphanage had only called him 'Headmaster' or 'Sir.'
The tracker swallowed several times, trying to keep his stomach from turning over. He'd tried hard to forget what had happened in that orphanage, but the memories still came back to him in his dreams sometimes.
"He was a monster," Tanner managed to choke out.
"He was a saint ! He took in those nobody else would! You ruined him!"
"He deserved more 'n that!" Vin yelled back. "He deserved t' hang fer what he done t' them boys!"
"Useless bastard!" the stranger screamed, grabbing the revolver from his holster and thrusting it into the barrel. He pulled the trigger.
Tanner yelped as the bullet gouged a furrow along his thigh and hip.
"Your lies killed him! The humiliation. You forced him to take his own life. You killed him!"
"Weren't lies!" Vin snarled. The man standing there, glaring down at him, was too young to have known what had happened in the orphanage. "Who are ya? Why the hell do y' care what happened there?"
"They were lies!" the man screamed. "Lies told by little heathen savages!"
"That 'bastard' was my father!" the man screamed, waving the gun at Tanner again.
"Then y' ought 'a be grateful he never did t' you what he did t' us," Vin snarled.
"You're going to hang, Tanner. You're going to hang for the death of Jubal Mathers."
Before Vin could argue with the man he heard the sounds of horses approaching at a hard gallop, two or three of them he guessed. "Chris!" he yelled as loudly as he could.
Mather's son slammed the top back on the barrel and wedged a piece of wood in to keep it sealed, then scrambled to the wagon seat. The horses lurched forward and, a few moments later, they were racing along the road.
Vin could hear the man yelling at the team, and the snap of a whip. He braced himself as best he could, but the bumps threw him into the sides of the barrel, and he hissed in pain with each jolt to his head, ribs, and injured leg.
The pounding hooves drew closer.
"Vin!" he heard Larabee yell.
"Chris!" Vin bellowed, but he didn't think the blond would be able to hear him.
"Stop the wagon!" Larabee shouted to the man.
Vin swore as the wagon suddenly veered hard to the left, then pitched down what the tracker guessed would be the side of a gully. He heard a crack of thunder and, a moment later, rain began pouring down, pounding on the closed lid. A closer crash of thunder prompted a scream from one of the horses pulling the wagon and sent a spike of fear straight through Vin's chest, but he didn't have time to worry about one of his friends being struck by lightning, because the wagon lurched, bounced hard, then flipped.
Vin heard the ropes holding the barrels in the wagon bed snap, and the barrel he was in tumbled out of the wagon, fell, rolled, and struck water.
Another scream from a horse reached him, then Vin was swept away, tumbling inside the barrel as it was rolled along the surface of the fast-moving river water.
"Chris!" he yelled as loudly as he could, trying to protect his broken rib as he toppled inside the barrel, but with his hands secured behind his back there was little he could do to protect himself.
"J'siah!" he tried, but there was no way they could possibly hear him over the roar of the water. Given how fast the barrel was moving, Vin knew the river was already flooding due to the storms; the rain having just caught up to them.
The barrel started to fill with water, riding lower in the river and easing the tossing somewhat, but Vin knew he was in serious trouble.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Chris had spotted the wagon ahead of them first, but the man standing in the wagon bed saw them, too. Larabee cursed the rain as it started to fall, reasonably at first, but then, after the lightning, in sheets of water falling so hard and so fast he could barely make out the conveyance less than a hundred feet ahead of them.
They bent low over their horses' withers, slowly gaining on the wagon, and Larabee yelled, "Vin!" He thought he hear a reply coming from one of the barrels in the wagon bed, but he couldn't be sure. "Stop the wagon!" he ordered the man, but the stranger didn't listen.
The wagon veered sharply to the left, bouncing down a gully just as lightning struck again, close by. The Ranger's horse squealed in fright and spun in a circle, bolting away, the lawman struggling to regain control over the panicked animal.
Chris and Josiah were both fighting with their horses as well, but they had been a little farther away, and the animals were a little less frightened. They pressed on after the wagon, but stopped at the top of the gully. Looking down, they watched as the wagon flipped over, the barrels from the back being thrown into the rapidly filling river. The man who had been driving the wagon was out in the water, his arms flailing. The wagon began to float away, debris in the churning liquid striking one of the horses, which squealed in fear or pain, or both.
"Vin!" Larabee cried, his gaze sweeping over the water, trying to find the man.
"He must be inside one of the barrels!" Josiah yelled over another growl of thunder.
The two men set off, following the rapidly-filling riverbed as best they could. There were four barrels, bobbing along in the dark, churning water. One crashed against a large boulder in the center of the river and broke apart, flour spilling out into the muddy water.
A little farther along they saw the two horses, drowned, caught in a tangle of debris from earlier flash floods that had swept through that summer. A second barrel was lodged next to the dead animals.
Chris leaped from his saddle and started down the side of the riverbank, but he stopped when a bolt of lightning struck the ground across from the running water. A moment later a surge of water swept by and the barrel tumbled into it, turning end of over end until it struck something in the roiling water and the lid popped off. Chunks of salted meat fell into the raging water.
Larabee scrambled back up the side of the gully and to his horse, grateful Josiah had had the good sense to grab the reins. He swung up into his saddle and they raced along the edge of the river, watching a third barrel rolling in the water, then it went under. They waited, but it didn't come up again.
Chris felt his heart tighten. If Vin had been in that barrel, he was surely drowned.
"There!" Josiah said, pointing.
Chris looked. He could just make out the last barrel a little farther along. The surge of water had lifted it, landing it in the middle of a tangle of debris that was anchored by two felled trees that formed a V sticking out into the water. The barrel was wedged into that V.
Water poured through the wooden container and both men knew it was unlikely anyone could have survived inside, but at least there was some small hope.
"Vin!" Chris shouted.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Vin's world dissolved into chaos. He was spun, dropped, rolled, slammed, and tossed by the churning water. The barrel, already half-filled with water, sank deeper into the river. Several times he had nearly drowned, coughing out water and snorting it through his nose.
Then, suddenly, he came to an unexpected, violent stop, and he heard a bone in his leg snap. He cried out in pain, then coughed, trying to clear his lungs of water, but the action was pure misery on his broken rib.
Rushing water started to fill the barrel and Vin struggled inside, trying to keep his head above the deadly liquid.
"Chris," he tried to yell, but he could barely get the man's name out, and nowhere near loudly enough to overcome the roar of the water around him.
He was sure his friends were out there, but the barrel was filling so fast…
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
"Hold the horses!" Chris yelled to Josiah, then started for the snagged barrel.
"I've got 'em! Go!"
Josiah looked, finding Ranger Norris there with them once more. The former priest shoved the reins into the lawman's hand and headed after Chris.
The water threatened to sweep both men away, but they managed to reach the barrel.
"Vin!" Chris yelled, trying to get the lid off. Grabbing his Colt, he slammed the butt of the weapon against the lid, popping one side up far enough for him to get his fingers under it.
Josiah wedged his fingers in as well and, together, they pried it off.
"Vin!" Chris yelled. "Give me your hand!"
Inside the barrel, Tanner shook his head. "Can't," he wheezed.
Larabee reached down and grabbed Tanner's shirt and heaved. As soon as the man's head and shoulders cleared the rim of the barrel, Josiah reached out and grabbed the tracker's shirt at the other shoulder, lifting with Chris.
Together they freed Vin, the tracker crying out when his broken leg struck the side of the barrel as he was pulled free. Ignoring the sound, they dragged the younger man over the debris to the edge of the river.
Norris reached out with one hand, the other still clutching the reins of the three horses. Josiah grabbed hold, and the Ranger pulled, helped by the horses, which backed up, skittish of the three dripping men emerging from the roaring water.
Once on solid ground, Josiah let go, leaving the horses to the Ranger as he helped lift Tanner between them. They hurried away from the river, the water still climbing. Finding a depression in the ground on the far side the road, they laid Vin down as the rain continued to pour down on them.
"Vin?" Chris called, his heart caught in a vise of worry at the man's grey-blue complexion.
Tanner's eyes opened sluggishly. "Chris," he slurred.
"Are you hurt?"
"M' leg," the tracker said, his head beginning to roll from side to side. "M' ribs."
"Leg feels broken," Josiah agreed, nodding as his hands reached to confirm Vin's suspicion. "Bone hasn't broken the skin, though."
Tanner whimpered in pain.
"Looks like he's been shot, too," the Ranger said, having quieted the horses and led them over to join them.
"We need to get him back to town," Chris said. "Help me get him on a horse."
The feat was difficult, especially with Tanner's hands secured behind his back, but the three men eventually managed it. Vin's eyes were full of tears from the pain in his leg and his side, but he ground his teeth shut and tried to help as much as he could.
Feeling Chris climb up behind him, Vin gave in to the pain and slumped, unconscious. Larabee pulled the younger man back against his chest and urged the horse on, the gelding tossing its head once before heading back to Tascosa, the rain continuing to fall on them.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Later that day
"What the hell do you mean there's no doctor?" Larabee stormed after they had carried Vin up to the room in the hotel that he and Josiah had used the night before.
"Just what I said," the hotel owner snapped, unhappy about the way the men were dripping all over his rug. "Never had a doctor here."
The blacksmith turned to the blond saying, "Alright, I got them shackles off."
"Thank you," Travis told the big man, handing him payment for his services.
"What do you do when someone gets hurt?" Josiah asked the hotel owner.
"I'll have Mrs. East come look at him. She doctors the cowboys who've gotten themselves hurt," the man said, his lips pursed at the thought of the drenched man soaking his bedding.
"Thank you," Josiah told the clerk, hurrying the man toward the door of the door. Much longer and Larabee was going to shoot the poor bastard where he stood.
Once the hotel owner was gone he turned his attention back to Tanner. Now that Vin's hands had been freed, he and Chris were able to strip the tracker's sodden clothes. That done, they shifted Vin to the second – dry – bed and covered him with a sheet and blanket.
The former priest set to work cleaning and bandaging the furrow that ran down Tanner's thigh and over his hip. He was grateful Nathan had packed plenty of medical supplies for their trip. By the time he'd finished with the wound, Mrs. East had arrived. She was much younger than he'd expected, but she seemed to know what she was doing.
"Setting your leg is going to be painful," she told Vin, helping him take a dose of laudanum. She waited for a few minutes, allowing the medicine to take effect before she set his leg, then applied a splint and bound it.
Vin lay, trembling, sweat running down his face and his skin gone back to the ashen gray they had seen earlier. He'd yelled once when she'd set the bone, then floated in a pain-induced torpor.
The woman checked Josiah's work, then turned his attention to Vin's scalp wound and, finally, to his ribs. When she stood and settled her hands on her hips, Chris and Josiah both moved closer to the bedside.
"How is he?" Larabee demanded.
"Lucky," she replied. "The leg should heal in a couple 'a months. The bone didn't shift apart much, which is good. Same is true for the rib. It's been cracked, but it didn't break completely apart. That'll heal up before his leg does. That furrow will need t' be kept clean, but so long as it don't get infected it's not gonna kill 'im."
"And the head wound?" Chris asked.
She frowned. "He's got a good-sized knot on his skull, but his eyes look good, and he ain't slurrin' his words or seein' double. Reckon he'll pull though. Still, head wounds ain't nothing to mess with."
Josiah grinned and nodded. "We've heard that before, ma'am. We'll keep a good eye on him."
"Chris," Vin hissed softly.
Larabee glanced over, recognizing the look on Tanner's face. He grabbed the wash basin and lunged to the bed, getting it under Tanner's chin just before the younger man retched, his stomach emptying.
"Oh dear," Mrs. East said, frowning as Vin groaned and heaved again. She looked at Josiah. "Has he had laudanum before?"
"A couple of times," Sanchez told her, frowning. "It didn't make him sick before."
"Probably the knock on the head," she said. "I won't give him any more."
For his part, Vin felt like he was back in the river, his stomach doing flips, expelling liquid. When he finally could, he slumped back on the bed and whimpered, his entire body shaking and throbbing with pain.
Mrs. East helped clean Vin up, then turned to the two worried peacekeepers. "I'll be back to check on him in the morning. If he gets worse, you have somebody come fetch me."
"We will," Josiah promised.
"Thank you, ma'am," Chris told her.
She nodded and left, casting a worried glance in Vin's direction. She knew his recovery would be slowed if they couldn't ease his pain, but the only thing she had was the laudanum.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
The next day passed in a blur for Vin. Whenever he was awake he was sick and shaky, unable to hold down anything, even water. The pain in his leg was almost unbearable, but he refused to take more of the laudanum, afraid it might compound his suffering by keeping him sick to his stomach.
Chris, Josiah, or Mrs. West was always with him when he woke, but nothing they did could make him feel any better.
Days passed, Vin growing weaker and weaker. Chris was worried, but at least the tracker hadn't come down with lung fever. Still, he wasn't eating, and he wasn't sleeping.
Three days into the ordeal, Josiah and the Ranger had ridden to another town with a telegraph office, contacting Nathan, but the healer hadn't had much to offer them. He sent the recipes for a couple of different teas, and Mrs. West tried them, along with regular doses of the willow bark tea they carried with them, but none of them seemed to help the tracker much with the pain, and so Vin continued to refuse food, and he couldn't sleep.
Chris had watched the man getting weaker and weaker, and he knew Vin was losing hope, too. Another few days, and the blond knew he would lose the tracker.
Vin's eyes fluttered open after a short nap, his blue eyes still pain-filled.
"You want some tea?" Larabee asked him.
Tanner shook his head.
"Vin, you have to try. You need to eat, sleep. Maybe we should try the laudanum again."
"No," Vin breathed. "Y' seen what it does t' me."
The blond had. The drug made Vin's stomach turn over, which was pure agony with the broken rib. And not just once, but again and again over hours. No, he couldn't ask Tanner to try that again.
Larabee huffed out a frustrated breath. "Vin, we have to try something."
As Tanner lay, wishing sleep would take him away from the pain, he heard Mrs. West say quietly, "I don't usually do this, but I'll fetch the curandeiro , maybe he can help." She looked at Tanner. "If y' want me to. Some folks don't cotton t' lettin' a curandeiro doctor 'em."
Vin knew about the Mexican healers, some of them were Indian, and he'd spend years living among various tribes. He wasn't sure what one of the healers could do to help him, but he was willing to try anything to escape the on-going pain he was suffering. He nodded. "I'd appreciate it, ma'am."
"Do it," Chris told her, "quickly."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Late that night
The next time Vin woke it was to the sound of soft chanting. The tracker was more than a little surprised to find he still didn't have a fever, and his lungs still felt clear. A swirling mist swam above his face.
No, not mist… smoke.
Vin frowned. He didn't smell wood smoke but something was definitely burning, but he carefully rolled his head to each side, looking for flames.
The man who was chanting stopped. He looked a little like Walking Bear, an old Kiowa shaman Vin knew, but he was dressed like the Mexican sheepherders who lived in and around Tascosa. He was holding a gourd – the source of the smoke.
The man smiled thinly and nodded. "It is good to see your eyes open, my friend." He held the gourd to Vin's lips. "Breathe."
Vin drew the smoke into his lungs, then blew it out.
"Again," the man instructed.
Vin continued drawing in the strange-smelling smoke until the curandeiro took the gourd away. Then the older man stood and looked down at Vin, his head cocking to the right for a moment before he nodded, more to himself than to Vin. "It is good. You will eat now."
The very thought of food frightened Vin, the tracker afraid he'd only end up throwing it back up. He opened his mouth to argue the idea, but the curandeiro held up his hand and said, "You will eat now."
Vin nodded his compliance. He'd learned long ago to never guess a shaman.
The old man smiled and nodded.
The pain was better, the tracker noted. Not gone, but he wasn't feeling it like he had before. And he was hungry. Maybe he'd be able to keep something down…
The curandeiro walked to the door of the hotel room and spoke to someone out in the hallway, then he returned to the bed. "Your friend is getting you something to eat."
"Thank ya," Vin said, his voice a little airy. It felt good to escape the pain, even a little.
The older man smiled and nodded. "The spirits wanted to help you. They have plans for you, my friend. Big plans."
Vin snorted softly in reply. "They do, huh?"
The old man nodded. "You wait. You'll see." He held out the gourd and Vin breathed in more of the smoke.
"Can y' tell me what I should be lookin' fer?"
"The Spirits will let you know when they are ready, my friend."
Vin grinned slightly. Oh, yeah, he was a shaman.
Chris came in a moment later with a bowl of soup and some fresh-baked bread. He set the bed tray across Vin's lap and watched as the tracker slowly tackled the meal.
The blond glanced over at the curandeiro . "That smoke made it so he could eat?"
The man nodded.
"Think you could show me how that works? We have a healer back home who like to know."
The older man shrugged a single shoulder. "I can show you."
Vin looked up from his soup and grinned. "Who made this? It's good."
"Mrs. West," Chris told him, relief flooding through him.
"Mmm," Vin replied, taking another bite of the still-warm bread. He looked over at the shaman. "Y' want some?"
The old man considered for a moment, then nodded.
Vin tore a piece of bread off and handed it to the older man, saying, "Name's Vin Tanner."
"Crecencio," the curandeiro replied, taking the bread. "Mmm, that is good," he agreed after a bite.
Vin finished the whole bowl of soup and most of the bread, Crecencio and Chris both sharing some of it. His belly full, Vin blinked sleepily and, a few moment later, was sound asleep.
Larabee shook his head. "I don't know what you did, but I'm glad it worked."
The curandeiro nodded. "I am glad, too. The Spirits will be happy with me… for a while, anyway."
"Can you keep helping him?" Chris asked.
Crecencio nodded. "I will come see him, let him breathe from the gourd. The Spirits will do the rest."
"As long as you show me what you put in there," Chris said, knowing Nathan was going to be very interested in whatever it might be.
"Just a plant, my friend. One that takes away pain."
"Well, that's just what he needed," Chris said, feeling optimistic for the first time in a week. Once Vin regained some of his strength they could finish what they had come here to do.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
A week later
Ten days after they first arrived in Tascosa, Vin lay in the hotel bed and listened as Judge Trivett exonerated him in the death of Jess Kincaid. His hand shook as he accepted the official papers from the judge. Travis had a copy of them as well.
"Thank ya, Judge," Vin said. "I appreciate it, more 'n I can say."
The older man nodded. "I don't cotton to an innocent man being hung, or a guilty man walking free. I believe you're an innocent man," he said simply. "And I appreciate the work you're doin' for Judge Travis."
Vin nodded, feeling a huge weight lift from his shoulders. He'd never really appreciated the gravity of the burden he'd been carrying until it was finally gone. He felt tears well in his eyes, but they didn't fall.
"I hear you're doing better," Judge Trivett commented.
"Yes, sir, I am," Vin told him. "Thanks t' m' friends."
The judge nodded. "Well, I'll be heading back to San Antonio. I wish you luck, son."
"Thank y' again, Judge," Tanner said, reaching out and shaking the man's hand. The smoke from the curandeiro's gourd had kept Vin on the mend, allowing him to eat and sleep despite the pain from his broken bones and, as a result, he was well on the road to a full recovery.
Trivett turned and left the room.
Ranger Norris grinned down at Tanner and said, "Y' ever want t' come back t' Texas, there'll be a badge waitin' fer ya."
Vin chuckled. "'Preciate that, Cordell, but I've got a job."
"Well then, m' best t' ya, Vin Tanner." The Ranger tipped his hat and left as well.
Travis stepped up to the bedside and reached down to give Vin's shoulder a kindly squeeze. "It wasn't how I expected this to go, but I'm glad it's all worked out."
Tanner nodded. "'Preciate all the work y' done fer me, Judge," he told the older man. "Ain't never gonna be able t' repay ya."
"No need, Vin," Travis told him sincerely. "You've risked your life more times than I can count to protect Four Corners, including my daughter-in-law and grandson. That's not a debt that can be repaid, either, so we'll just call it even."
Vin grinned. "Reckon I can do that."
Travis nodded. "I'll be taking the stage back to San Antonio with Judge Trivett, so I need to go gather my bags. Gentlemen, safe travels back to Four Corners."
"Thanks, Judge," Chris said, sticking his hand out.
Travis shook it, nodding as he said, "Justice was served."
A few moments later Vin was alone with Chris and Josiah.
"It's really over," Vin said quietly.
"You're a free man," Chris told him, nodding. "And Judge Trivett paid for the room 'til you're ready to travel."
It was all so hard to believe. The tracker looked up at the two men. "Y' don't need t' stay here 'til I can ride. It's gonna be a month, maybe more."
"We'll wait," Josiah told him matter-of-factly. "Besides, I'd like to spend some time with Crecencio."
Vin nodded. He wasn't surprised. The curandeiro was the kind of holy man Josiah was attracted to; whether or not Josiah knew it, he was working on becoming a holy man himself. The Spirits probably had some plans for the former priest as well.
The tracker looked at Larabee. "How 'bout you, Cowboy?" he asked. "Y' headin' back?"
Chris shook his head. "Hell, I leave now, there's no telling what kind of trouble you might get yourself into."
Vin snorted softly. "Alrighty then, I'll just shoal here 'til Mrs. East says I can go."
"Damn right you will," Larabee agreed.
Vin's eyes narrowed. "Y' sayin' I don't know when I'm ready t' ride?"
"I'm saying you're staying in that bed until Mrs. East says otherwise."
"Who the hell do y' think you are, Larabee?" Vin challenged, looking like a cat about to arch and spit.
The blond crossed his arms over his chest and grinned. "The one standing on two good legs."
Vin muttered in one of the Indian languages he knew and Josiah and Chris both chuckled.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
It took nine weeks, but Vin was eventually back on his feet. He still had a limp, but he refused to keep either crutches or cane for the trip home. They took their horses and headed back to New Mexico Territory, returning them to the same livery where they had originally rented them. Then, using the money Ezra had given them, they bought train tickets to take them back to Tucson. They would leave the following morning.
That evening, sitting at a table at the back of a saloon, the three men shared a drink.
"Vin," Josiah said, "who was that man? Why'd he come after you? Was he a friend of Kincaid's?"
Tanner tossed back the shot of whiskey and set the glass on the table. He'd wondered when his friend would get around to asking him that question. "Nope, he didn't care 'bout Kincaid."
"Why'd he come after you then?" Chris asked.
"Said I was responsible fer another man's death," Vin admitted.
"Who?" Larabee wanted to know.
Vin met Josiah's eyes, knowing the older man would recognize the name. "He was Jubal Mathers' son; said I was t' blame fer his pa's death."
Sanchez choked on his whiskey, his face draining of color as he coughed.
Chris looked from Vin to Josiah and back again. "Never heard of Jubal Mathers."
Josiah cleared his throat and glanced across the table to Tanner, who gave him a minute nod – permission to tell Larabee what he knew of the story. "Jubal Mathers ran an orphanage in Texas; took in children who'd been Indian captives, who didn't have family, or whose families didn't want 'em back."
Chris frowned. "There's more to it than that," he said, his gaze shifting between the two men.
Josiah nodded. "The children he took in…" he started, but he wasn't sure how to explain.
"…were treated worse 'n prisoners 'a war," Vin finished for the older man.
"They were tortured," Josiah clarified. "Many of them died."
Chris looked at Vin, already knowing the answer before he asked, "You were one of those kids?"
Tanner nodded. "Got m'self out when I's fourteen, told a lawman. When the Rangers showed up at the orphanage ol' Jubal killed himself t' keep from hangin'."
"His son knew what you did; he took you for revenge," Larabee said, outing it together.
Vin shrugged. "He said he was Mathers' son, but he could 'a been one 'a the boys Jubal showed favor to… one 'a the ones he got t' do his dirty work. They worshipped him like he was some kind 'a king."
Larabee shook his head, expression hardening. "Drowning was too good for him."
Josiah nodded his agreement. "They found close to thirty graves at the orphanage."
"They's the lucky ones," Tanner told them, staring into his drink.
The tone of Tanner's voice sent chills racing down Chris' back. Whatever had happened in that orphanage, it must have been horrific. Not knowing what to say, the blond reached out and refilled each of their glasses.
Vin nodded his thanks.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
"Hey! They're back!" Vin heard JD yell over the sound of the stage. When it came to a stop, Josiah and Chris climbed out first, then Vin eased himself onto the boardwalk as well. His leg was sore from the rattling trip from Tucson, but it was far better than he'd expected.
Nathan pushed through the small crowd to welcome them home. "Vin, ya alright?"
The healer frowned. "Come over to the clinic. I want to get a look at that leg."
Vin sighed, but he didn't put up a fight. He was hurting, and he didn't mind escaping to the clinic, but before he could JD was there, slapping him on the back.
"Congratulations, Vin!" the young sheriff said. "I saw the dodger come in saying you'd been exonerated."
"Good t' hear," Vin told him, another wave of relief washing over him. Travis was a man of his word, no doubt about it.
Buck and Ezra stepped up, expressing their congratulations as well before Nathan moved them back, saying, "I'm takin' Vin to the clinic. You can congratulate him later."
Tanner and Nathan headed off, the others crowding around Chris and Josiah, demanding to hear the whole story that had resulted in their long delay.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
In the clinic, Vin eased himself down onto the bed and waited for Nathan to come over. When the healer did, it was with a cup in his hand. He handed it Tanner.
The tracker took a sniff. Whiskey. With a small grin, he lifted the cup to his lips and drank the contents.
"Now, tell me the truth, you in pain?"
"Some," Vin admitted.
"Lay back, I'm gonna look at yo'r leg, then you can get some rest."
Tanner laid down. "Things here stay quiet?"
"Quiet as usual," the healer said, his hands running over the tracker's leg. A check of Vin's rib followed, then his head and the healing bullet track on his hip and leg. By the time it was over Vin was down to his long johns, the whiskey making him sleepy.
"Well, looks like yo'r gonna be fine," Nathan told him.
"Could 'a told y' that m'self," Vin grumbled.
Nathan grinned. "Get some sleep, Vin."
"Sleep a lot better if y' quit talkin'."
Nathan chuckled softly, watching as the tracker drifted off. He'd make sure the man was resting comfortably, then go get some food for him when he woke up.
The healer grinned. Damn but it was good to have them all home.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
A few days later, Vin walked down the boardwalk, his leg healed, the last of his limp gone. He drew in a deep breath of the hot, late-morning air and smiled. It felt good, damn good, to be a free man.
Out in front of the jail Larabee sat, reading. He'd be heading into the saloon soon, and Vin intended to join him. He was hungry, and he hated to eat alone.
Larabee looked up as if sensing his presence, and his intent. The blond closed his book and stood, then nodded in the direction of the saloon.
Vin nodded back.
They both crossed the street, meeting in front of the bat-wing doors.
"Hungry?" Larabee asked.
Vin nodded again. "Smelled Inez's tamales."
Chris grinned and pushed the door open and stepped into the saloon, Vin following behind him. They took their seats at Larabee's usual table and a few moments later Inez showed up with food for them. She also brought them beer.
"Thank y', ma'am," Vin told her with a smile.
She smiled back at him. "You're welcome, Señor Vin."
Yep, life as a free man was sweet, very sweet.
Chris watched the exchange between the two and hid a smile. It looked like Buck might have some competition for the young woman's affections. Do the ladies' man good.
Feedback to: firstname.lastname@example.org