The man was drunk.
It was a miracle he had enough sense left within him to keep from getting caught in his own traps. The steely toothed metal lips were pulled back and locked into place, then set under the sand of the desert. "Need more coyote skins," the man muttered. "Wolf skins, too, but need to go further up into the mountains." He giggled as he pulled himself to his feet and wavered. He put the bottle of whiskey to his lips and guzzled down a few draughts. His attire consisted of fox and wolf skins. His boots were made of bear hide. His face was covered with a full brown beard and his long hair was filthy and hung in tangled strands over his broad back. When he grinned his yellowed, pitted teeth showed he had no interest in taking care of himself. Probably the only thing keeping infection from setting into his mouth was the whiskey and alcohol he drank. He swayed as he took another step toward his pack mule. "I should check the ones over in the canyon," he told the animal as he picked up the mule's reins. "I should have some nice skins there from what I could see through my lookin' glass." He patted a pocket above his left hip. "Lots of rabbits and coyotes in that area." He laughed again.
As he began to walk in the direction that would lead him to the canyon he began to sing a song from his army days. Back when he was sober...back when he was sane.
+ + + + + + +
"I'll be back come mornin'," Vin Tanner told his friend, Chris Larabee, as the two walked out to where Vin's horse, Peso, was tied up at the jailhouse hitching rail. "Heard tell of animals yelping out in pain by the old Hodgings place. He said they come from the canyon, so I'll have to enter through the canyon mouth." He tied up a sack of supplies to his saddle.
"What do you think it is?" Chris asked as he grabbed Peso's neck where the mane met and gave the horse a gentle squeeze.
Vin shrugged, as he cinched Peso's saddle up some more. "Could be anythin' ."
"You don't think it might be something rabid, do ya'?"
Vin looked up at him at that. "Thought about it. Could be."
"You sure you don't want some company this trip?"
Vin knew what Chris was wanting. Reassurance that Vin wasn't running into something he couldn't handle. "Naw, I need some time alone, Pard. This place is startin' to get my nerves twitchin'."
Chris smiled. "I understand that feeling."
Vin grinned at him as he mounted his horse and took his reins. "'Sides, if it is somethin' rabid, I'll feel better knowin' I don't have to watch someone else's backside. If there's anythin' to worry over I'll come straight back. If not, thought I'd take a few hours and just enjoy some quiet."
Chris held out his arm and Vin grabbed it. "Watch your back out there, Cowboy," Chris said with a grin. It wasn't just a typical parting word between these two. When Chris told Vin to watch his back, he meant it, and Vin knew he meant it.
Vin gave Chris' forearm a squeeze. He never thought about it much, but he and Chris always grabbed forearms instead of hands when they shook. Chris always seemed to shake other men's hands, but with Vin it was the forearm. There had to be something symbolical in that, but what it was, Vin couldn't be sure. The first time they had done it had been when the two went into Purgatory to fetch their friend, Buck Wilmington, back from a band of outlaws that had abducted him. Purgatory was a town of outlaws, described by Vin as a 'hell hole'. 'No one with a badge will come within a bullet's distance,' he had told Chris.
Then as they had emerged on the town a man had gotten shot in the back right before their eyes. Vin had come to Purgatory a lot in his bounty hunting days to retrieve men wanted for murder, rape and any other crimes against mankind. The man who had gotten shot before them had been one of them. His story did not ease Chris' mind...
"The ugly cuss who got shot?"
"Took him in once. The ugly cuss who shot him?"
"Took him in once, too. His whole gang knows me."
Chris had not liked Vin being in that town from that moment. "You stick around here you're gonna be deader than a beaver hat."
"I'll take that chance," Vin had replied with all confidence.
"I won't," Chris had told him with a firm and no-nonsense tone. "You head on back to town. If we're not back by mornin', you come huntin'." And then they had grabbed each other's forearms. Vin and Chris had exchanged looks of respect and understanding.
Buck was in trouble and Vin didn't want to let him down, but Chris was still the leader of the Seven and Vin would never contradict a direct order from him, unless he flat out disagreed with it. So far, though, the disagreements between the two were few and far between, partly due to the respect each had for the others ability to think for themselves, and partly due to the fact that they usually thought alike.
They worked together and voiced their differences out of earshot of the others. Respect. It summed up about fifty percent of their friendship. The other fifty percent was made up of trust. That trust not only stemmed from the respect, it stemmed from a deeply rooted need in both men to connect. Each had traveled alone, dealing with their own demons alone for so long that when they met it had been a sense of relief. Now they each had someone the other could fall back on in times of weariness and doubt. 'Watch your back,' meant simply, 'I can't be there with ya', so keep an extra sharp look out.' Three simple words, but there was nothing cliché about them, not between these two. As independent as Vin was, he basked in Chris' desire to walk with him. The bounty on Vin's head was a constant danger. Anyone could enter the town and try to collect on that five hundred dollars. Chris had volunteered to go with Vin to Tascosa to try and clear his name. He had not waited to be asked and Vin had accepted the offer without a seconds thought...as if Chris being at his side was as natural as breathing.
So when the forearms had been clasped that day within the dirty boundaries of Purgatory, neither man thought twice of the action. The two had slipped into it by natural instinct.
"Reckon y'all can keep this town safe while I'm gone?" Vin asked, a hint of humor in his tone.
Chris grinned. "I reckon so."
Vin smiled and pulled Peso away. He was off at a lope.
Chris watched him leave. Chuckling, he shook his head and headed back into the jailhouse.
+ + + + + + +
Old man Hodgings lived about a quarter mile east from the edge of the canyon. He had come into town that morning and had informed Vin of the animal sounds coming within the canyon. If there was danger it was best to check out the cause. Hodgings knew Vin was a competent tracker and if anyone could find the reasons for it, he could. From the directions old Hodgings had given, Vin knew what part of the canyon to scout. The old man had said they were yelps coming from maybe coyotes. Something was out killing and the animals were dying painful deaths. There was about four more hours of daylight left. Vin would try to get in as much scouting as he could before having to settle down for the night.
Two hours into the canyon was when he saw the reasons for the cries and howls of pain. A coyote was lying on the ground; his leg bleeding...caught in a steel toothed trap. Vin pulled Peso to a stop and cautiously dismounted. 'Damn! Trappers!' he thought. There were no laws prohibiting trappers from performing their lively hood in this territory, but Vin could never see the sense in killing an animal just because of their skins. He tied Peso to a shrub, then began to study the ground. He made sure Peso was in no danger of accidentally stepping into a hidden trap. The ground was disturbed. It looked as if someone had taken a shrub and tried to brush away the signs of their being there. A footprint caught his eye. The man who had been here was large, maybe even larger than Josiah was. He slowly went to the coyote's side and saw that it was half-dead. The leg was mangled in the trap. Vin shook his head in sorrow. The coyote opened one eye and whined pitifully. "Easy there, fella. I'm gonna get ya' out of this mess." Vin cautiously reached out and rested a hand on the coyotes' side. "I know it hurts." Vin examined the leg and saw that the coyote had tried to gnaw his leg off to get out, but the blood loss had been too great. The animal was weaker than a newborn pup. The tracker lowered his head in remorse. "I'm sorry, fella. You and I both know ya' ain't gonna make it. Once I pull this contraption off ya', you're gonna bleed to death." He cursed under his breath. Senseless killing, slow and painful death...this kind of thing angered the tracker. Indians killed and used the skins of the animals, but they also used the rest of the animal for survival as well. Meat for food, bones for tools, skins for clothes and blankets. None of the animal went to waste. The animals killed were looked on as gifts from the Great Spirit, worthy of respect due to their sacrifice. The customs Vin had learned from the tribes he had connected with taught him that all animal life was respected by the Indians. When the animal was killed the Indians thanked them for their life and the sacrifice they had made to help their people survive.
Vin pulled a knife from his belt and gazed at the blade with sorrow. It would be a quicker death this way. He looked the coyote in the eye. "I ask fer your forgiveness. Will ya' give it to me?" The animal blinked once. Vin reached down and caressed the animal's neck. "I send your soul to the Great Spirit, my brother. Travel free." Vin raised the knife over the animals' side and closed his eyes. "I honor your death," he whispered as he plunged the knife into the coyotes' heart. The animal was too weak to even yelp. Vin pulled out the blade and gazed down at the now lifeless animal. "Great Spirit, receive this animal's soul." He laid his knife down and proceeded to release the trap from around its leg. When it was released, Vin took a stick and set it in the trap, triggering it once again, so that no other animal would walk into its merciless grip. He then took his knife and began to dig a grave for the animal. He knew there were other traps around. The scent of blood and death would bring other animals into this area to feed. The trapper who had set these inhumane instruments of death would continue on with his slaughter, but if Vin had anything to say about it...he would not contribute to it.
+ + + + + + +
When the burial had been completed, Vin reached over to pick up his knife. He stood and looked around the area. Suddenly he heard another coyote howl. Peso jerked back nervously. Vin turned and saw Peso rear up, pulling away from the shrub. The horse turned and ran off. Vin cursed and hurried after him. "PESO!" More concerned for his mount than for himself he didn't see the danger until it was too late. His foot went down and in an instant he felt the metal tear into his flesh. He screamed out in agony as he collapsed, his knife flying from his hand.
Vin bit back another cry of pain as he watched his horse head back in the direction they had come. "Peso," he whispered. He looked down at the blood covering his boot. The trap's teeth had caught him in the back of the leg, above the ankle and the top of his foot where it met the ankle. He tried to sit up, to reach the trap's device that would free him, but he blacked out as the pain finally became too much. He fell back, his right arm stretched out to where his knife rested only a few feet away. His last thought before the darkness claimed him was his hope that Peso would not get caught in another trap. There was no telling how many were out there.
+ + + + + + +
The man was in the canyon now. He looked through his spyglass. He had heard the cry of pain and then had seen a horse galloping off. "Damn robbers," he spoke out as he took another swig of whiskey. He tied up his mule to a shrub and pulled out a knife. "I'll teach them to mess with my skins." He corked his bottle of whiskey and put it back in his saddlebag. "No one messes with my skins." He headed in the direction the runaway horse had come from and began to search for signs of the intruders. What he found stopped him short. "Well, I'll be," he muttered. He found a buckskin clad man lying unconscious on the ground. He took a few steps closer and saw that the man's foot had been caught in one of his traps. He grinned with delight. "That'll teach ya', ya' upstart." He walked carefully over the terrain, knowing approximately where his other traps were, by the markers he alone could detect.
After carefully scouting the area, he saw the other trap had been triggered, a stick stuck between the teeth. Blood covered the trap. Upon closer examination, the trapper also found a knife covered in blood and dirt lying a few feet away from the unconscious man. He was drunk, but not so drunk that he couldn't figure out what had happened. He glared down at the man before him and snarled. "Freed my animal, did ya'? Tripped the trap so it wouldn't get another, huh? Well, well, well. Now look at ya'."
The buckskin-clad man moaned with pain. The trapper squatted down a few feet off and clasped his hands together, his knife held ready between his palms. He began to laugh.
+ + + + + + +
Vin heard the sound of whistling and slowly opened his eyes. Pain was his first realization, then he felt the cold. He lifted his head to the sound of the whistling. "Chris?" he asked. The sun was setting and in the mixture of dim light and pain, he couldn't make out the figure sitting beside him a few feet away.
"Well, well, lookey who's awake."
The voice was of a stranger.
"Who...who's there?" he managed to croak out.
"The man ya' stole from, ya' piece of shit."
Vin's vision was blurred with pain, but he saw the animal skins hanging from the man's frame and knew he was face to face with the trapper. "Help...me," he whispered.
The man tilted his head and studied Vin curiously. "Now...why would I want to do that?"
Vin's gazed at him in shock. Surely he hadn't heard right. "My leg...caught...help me, please."
The trapper laughed hideously. "Seems to me ya' got yourself in this here predicament. Messin' where ya' shouldn't be. What happened to the animal that was in the trap over there?" He pointed with his thumb to the triggered hunting device.
Vin looked over, but the effort to move was getting too much. He closed his eyes and rested his head back to the ground. "Killed it, buried it."
"Is that so? Well that animal belonged to me, you bastard. Seems to me ya' stole my property."
"Didn't...steal," Vin was on the verge of passing out again. "Help me, the pain..."
"Is less than what ya' deserve, skin stealer. Nope. I think I'll just leave ya' here. Since ya' buried any chance of blood luring more animals into this area, your blood will just have to do." The trapper laughed and stood up.
Vin looked up at him with fear. "You...can't leave me here!"
"Can...and will." The trapper's laughter filled the air. "Hot damn! I got me a skin stealer!"
Vin reached out a shaking hand. "Four Corners...Chris Larabee...find...Chris," he said, but the words fell on deaf ears.
Suddenly Vin felt the man lifting him and removing his jacket. "This jacket should fetch a fair price. Nice texture. Figure ya' owe me for the hide ya ' stole."
"I didn't steal from ya'," Vin said, weakly. "You're killing these animals...needlessly. All fer a few dollars."
"People pay me to keep the coyotes in this area from killin' off their livestock. I don't consider that needless killin'. And if I can git a few dollars for the hides, then what right do ya' have to keep me from makin' a profit?"
"You're not trying to protect any livestock," Vin argued, tiredly.
The man kicked Vin in the side, then back-handed him across the face. "Shut your mouth, skin stealer!" He reached down and pulled Vin's Mare's Leg from its holster. "Nice gun. Think I'll sell it next town I come to."
Vin heard the sickest laughter he had ever heard. "My friends...they'll be searching fer me."
"They'll find ya' dead," the man laughed. "Or they'll get caught in my traps, too. Either way, I ain't about to let no one interfere with my trade." He took off, leaving Vin to stare after him. In spite of his pain, Vin knew he was talking to a man with no conscience. "They find me dead, they'll track ya' down, ya' bastard!"
"Go to hell!" the man replied as he loaded Vin's things onto the back of his mule.
"Ya' can't leave me here! It's murder!"
The man laughed again. "Killin's my business. I can't hep it if'n a stranger gets caught in one of my traps...now can I? I just found ya' ...dead...and knew there was nothin' I could do fer ya'. No one will ever know."
Vin lay back on the ground and closed his eyes. "Chris'll know," he whispered. "Chris'll find ya'." The darkness came at him again and he passed out once more.
The trapper looked at him and shrugged. "Steal my skins will ya'? Leavin' ya' here might just teach ya' a lesson about a man's property." He turned and took his mule's reins. He started back out of the canyon.
+ + + + + + +
A sprung trap, a yelp of pain, a howl of agony. Vin jerked awake to find himself still caught in the trap. The nighttime darkness was pierced only by a quarter moon and the pin pricks of starlight. He was shivering with cold and shock. He tried to move, but the pain in his leg sent bolts of agony through him. He cursed with the motion. His foot had swollen and he felt his boot constricting the swelling. It tightened around his foot like sun dried hide. He heard a snarl and a growl and looked over to see the outline of an animal, possibly another coyote. It was about ten feet away crouching down and snarling at him. He eased himself back onto the ground and forced himself to remain absolutely still for a few moments. He kept his attention on the animal more with his hearing than his sight, which was hampered by blurred vision and the dark. Slowly, without a sound, he reached for his Mare's Leg at his side and found it gone. Then he remembered the tracker had taken both his gun and coat. He lowered his head. "Aww, hell," he moaned. The coyote growled and Vin shut his eyes, waiting for the animal to spring.
When it did so, Vin was taken aback with surprise as another animal jumped in its path. The sound of snarling and teeth snapping filled his ears. Yelps and growls told Vin the animals were fighting. One yelped in pain and ran off, leaving the other to watch it go.
When it was over, Vin turned in the general direction of the other animal, not sure exactly where it was. He saw the animal slowly walk over, a questioning whine emitting from its throat. From the outline and the soft moonlight, Vin could see it was another coyote. The animal sat on its haunches and looked at him, unthreatening. Vin rested his head back. 'I'll be go to hell,' he thought as he realized this coyote had just saved his life. "Who the heck are ya' and why do ya' care what happens to me?"
The coyote, as if in answer to the question, got on his stomach and inched its way toward Vin as if afraid he would be hit. "It's all right there, fella. Ya' ain't gonna hurt me, then I ain't gonna hurt you."
The coyote took Vin's tone as welcoming and scurried closer to the tracker. In a few more moves he was lying down on top of Vin's chest and stomach, resting his nose in between its paws. Vin was more than a little surprised at this action from a wild animal. The coyote positioned himself to where his body covered most of Vin's torso and Vin immediately felt the body heat. "Ya'...ya' gonna keep me warm, huh, fella?"
The coyote reached over and licked Vin's face. It was like a tame dog. Vin cautiously reached up and began to stroke the coyote's back. "Thank you," he whispered before allowing the warmth to send him to oblivion again.
+ + + + + + +Vin was walking toward him, a lost soul in the darkness. "Chris..." his voice echoed around the gunslinger. "The animal has teeth. Watch your back."
Chris looked down to see Vin's leg was missing and blood was pouring out of the stump.
"NO!" Chris shouted as he jerked awake. He looked around and found himself in his hotel room. He was breathing heavy and he reached up to wipe the sweat from his forehead. His hair was soaked and his pillow was wet to the touch. Pushing the blanket away he got out of bed and quickly got dressed. Something was wrong. He couldn't shake the feeling Vin was in trouble. He looked out the window as he buttoned his shirt. Sun was rising. No one had come for him in the night to report bad news, but still...that feeling was taking hold of him, like the sun was taking hold of the day. He quickly put his boots on, grabbed his hat and gun belt and headed out of his room. He would check the livery first, see if Peso was back in his stall. Then he would check the saloon and Vin's wagon. A dream was a dream, and he didn't cotton to dreams the way Josiah did, but why that particular dream? Why that particular warning and image of Vin?
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