Peso wasn't back in his stall. Vin wasn't in his wagon. Chris stormed across the street to the saloon only to meet up with Ezra who was heading in there himself. "Mister Larabee, I've just finished our routine patrol for the morning. Would you care to join me in a cup of coffee?"
"Not right now, Ezra. Seen Vin?"
"Why, no, now that you mention it, not since yesterday afternoon."
The gunslinger's tone and demeanor was one of a stretched rope ready to break. "Is something wrong, Mister Larabee?" Ezra asked as he followed Chris into the saloon. The barkeep, Joe, was busy setting out glasses and
cleaning down the bar. He looked up just as the two men entered. Chris jutted his chin out at him. "You seen Vin anywhere?"
"No, sir, Mister Larabee."
Chris' brow furrowed and Ezra sensed the worry. "Did he not say he would return sometime this morning?" the gambler offered.
Chris cursed softly to himself. Vin had said that. The gunslinger had forgotten. "Shit! It was probably just a dream after all," he muttered.
Ezra looked at him curiously. "Did a demon of the night invade your dreams, Mister Larabee?"
Chris snorted. He turned and stormed out of the doors.
Ezra watched him go, then he turned to Joe and shrugged. "The man is living a nightmare, no reason to think he doesn't suffer them in his sleep. Cup of coffee, Joe, make it strong."
Joe shrugged and went about his serving tasks.
+ + + + + + +
The sun rose to past mid-morning, edging closer to noon, and Chris was pacing the jailhouse steps. Nathan and Josiah were sitting on the benches just outside the jailhouse windows, enjoying a cup of coffee. Chris had said nothing in the last hour. He would pace the porch, then walk the streets in search of God knew what, then he would come back and try to sit down and relax. "Chris, if you don't mind my saying so, you look like a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs," Josiah said. "Wanna tell us what's bothering you?"
Chris just looked at him. "It's going on noon," he muttered.
"Why, yes it is, is there some reason this time of day would be a problem?"
"Vin said he would be back by mornin'," Nathan explained. "He's over due."
"Maybe he just took to sleeping in this morning, Chris," Josiah tried to console.
Chris looked at the preacher as if he was crazy. "Have you ever known Vin to sleep in?"
Josiah shrugged. "Reckon not. But I have known him to lose track of time. You know how he is, Chris. When he's out there on the landscape God provides for us to enjoy, he communes with his nature once more. Vin isn't the type to rush through his life. He savors every moment of it."
"Because he knows that at any moment his life could end," Chris replied standing at the porch step and leaning his hand against the pillar to his right. He kept searching up one end of the street to the other.
"You're thinking about the bounty on his head...ain't ya'?" Nathan asked.
Chris only nodded, not turning to acknowledge the question.
Josiah looked over to his right and sat up straight in his chair. "I'll be damned," he said. "Chris, isn't that Peso?"
Chris turned to where Josiah was pointing. He saw the black horse with the white stripe down the front of his nose, walking into town, his head lowered, his coat covered with dried sweat and dirt. He looked as if he had been run hard. He was also rider-less. Chris hurried out into the street to walk up to the animal when he stopped in his tracks. "Josiah, Nathan, take a look at this."
The two men stood and walked over to Chris' side. What they saw made their eyes grow wide with astonishment. "Tell me that isn't a coyote leading that horse into town," Nathan said as if he was finding it hard to believe what he was seeing.
"Well, it is a coyote and it does seem to have Peso's reins in its mouth along with...what is he carrying, Chris?"
Chris approached closer. Both the coyote and the horse stopped their approach. The coyote sat on his haunches, still holding the reins and...Chris stopped. He turned to Josiah and Nathan. "It's Vin's hat."
"Approach him cautiously, Chris," Josiah said. "Obviously this is a rather unorthodox occurrence. See what he does if you reach out your hand to him."
Chris did as Josiah instructed; knowing the preacher had more experience in things of the supernatural nature. This ranked right up there with Indian legends he had heard. He squatted down and held out his right hand. "What have you got there, fella?"
The coyote let go Peso's reins and began to cautiously walk toward Chris, still holding the light gray hat in his mouth. When the animal was within two feet of Chris he stopped and sat back on his haunches. Lowering his head, he deposited the hat to the ground then looked up at Chris, whining a bit as if wondering what to do next.
Chris slowly leaned forward and carefully picked up the hat. He then slowly stood and examined it. "No sign of blood."
"We should check Peso over as well," Nathan said.
Chris gestured with his hand for the healer to do just that. "I don't think this coyote is dangerous, Nathan, but approach Peso slowly."
Nathan gave the coyote a wide berth and slowly walked up to Peso, taking his reins. He examined the horse and saddle. "He's been run hard, Chris. Looks as if he's plum wore out. But I don't see any sign of blood, either on his coat or on the saddle."
Chris looked out at the end of town where the desert greeted his eyes. "What the hell happened to Vin?"
Josiah pointed to the coyote. The animal was looking up at Chris with expectant eyes. "Perhaps our little friend here can tell us?"
Chris looked at the coyote as realization dawned. He looked around at the people of the town, going about their business. "Have you noticed no one has commented on this coyote? It's as if they don't see him."
Josiah shrugged, crossing his arms in front of his chest. "Well, it wouldn' t be the first time a spirit was put in the way of man to assist them in an act of guidance."
Chris looked at Josiah, curiously. "You mean to tell me we're lookin' at a ghost?"
Josiah smiled. "I can honestly say with authority, Chris, that stranger things have happened."
Chris took a moment to think over the situation. "All right. Josiah, take Peso to the livery. Have the owner take care of him for us. Nathan, go get your medicine kit. If Vin's hurt..."
"On my way," Nathan said as he handed the reins to Josiah and took off for his clinic.
Chris sighed wearily. "I'm going to find Buck and Ezra and have them and JD watch the town while we're gone." He started off toward the saloon when he stopped, realizing the coyote was taking heel at his side. When he stopped the coyote sat down and looked up at him. "Seems he knows of your connection to Vin, Chris. I wouldn't question it." Josiah said with another grin. "And it's obvious he ain't gonna let you out of his sight."
Chris studied the preacher for a moment, not saying anything. He then glanced down at the coyote and shook his head. 'What the hell is going on?' he asked himself then turned and headed into the saloon.
Buck, Ezra and JD were sitting at a table just inside the saloon, eating, when Chris and his new friend entered. Ezra about choked on his mouthful of stew. "Good Lord, Mister Larabee, is that what I think it is?" the gambler asked, pointing to the coyote.
Chris looked down at the animal and then back to the others who were gazing at the animal, mouths gaping. "You see him, too, then?"
"Of course we see him. He's standing right next to ya'," Buck replied.
The other patrons of the saloon, including the barkeep looked over to see what the commotion was about. Chris observed their curious faces. It was obvious none of them saw the coyote. Chris approached the table and lowered his voice. "Don't mention the coyote, whatever you do. No one seems to be able to see him except us."
Buck leaned forward, lowering his voice to match Chris' tone. "What are you saying, Pard?" He was trying hard not to snicker.
Chris threw Vin's hat onto the table. "Seems Vin's in trouble and this coyote is here to help us find him. He brought the hat into town, leading Peso by the reins. Don't ask me to explain it, but Josiah seems to think the coyote is a spirit."
Ezra stifled a chuckle. "Mister Larabee, with all due respect, but that does seem a bit far fetched to believe."
"You think I don't know that?" Chris snarled. "The point is, you all can see him, but no one else can."
Buck looked at his friend as if he had finally cracked. He looked over his shoulder. "Joe? Look around, tell us if you see anything out of the ordinary near this table."
The barkeep looked around the table. "Nothing, Buck. Why?"
"You..." JD started then stopped. He turned away from Joe and sank back into his chair. "He doesn't see it," he whispered.
Buck's face turned solemn. He looked at the other patrons who acted none the least concerned that a wild animal was inside the saloon. He then turned to Chris. "All right, you've made your point. What do you think is going on?"
"Josiah, Nathan and I are going out to look for Vin. I want you boys to stay here and keep an eye on things." He turned and started out the batwing doors when he stopped. He looked down at the coyote, which looked up at him expectantly. "Come on, fella." He continued out into the street, the coyote following at his side.
JD stood along with Buck and Ezra. The three men approached the doors and watched the scene before them with bewilderment. "No one will ever believe this," JD said.
"Which is exactly why we're not going to inform anyone about it, Mister Dunne," Ezra suggested. "An occurrence of this nature is best kept to ourselves."
Buck nodded. "I couldn't agree with you more, Ez."
+ + + + + + +
When Chris started over to where his horse was hitched, he felt a tug on his duster and looked down to see the coyote trying to pull him away. "What? What do you want?" The coyote stopped pulling and sat on his haunches. The animal gazed up at Chris who knelt down in front of it and looked it square in the eye. "Can you take us to Vin?" he asked, sincerely believing he would receive an answer.
The coyote reached out and licked his face gently. The animal then pulled back and locked eyes with Chris. That was when Chris experienced the vision. He saw Vin fall.he saw the trap around Vin's foot...The tracker was reaching out to a shadowy form standing over him. "Help me...the pain..."
"Is less than what you deserve, skin stealer." Another voice, gruffer, malicious.
"You can't leave me here!"
"Can and will!"
Chris jerked back. He shut his eyes and rubbed them with a forefinger and thumb. He looked at the coyote. "Who are you? What are you?"
The coyote looked at him with resolve. Gone was the face of a questioning, uncertain animal. In its place was an animal that looked at Chris with wisdom and fortitude. Chris knew then, that there was no time to waste. He stood and hurried to his horse. Mounting, he spurred his black in the direction of Nathan's clinic.
+ + + + + + +
When Vin awoke it was to the burning heat of the afternoon sun. He was thirsty and sweating. He knew he had a fever. His foot ached like hell. Forcing himself to sit up he felt a wave of dizziness and it pushed him back down again. He rubbed at his eyes, thinking why his hat wasn't giving him any shelter from the blaring sun. He looked around him and saw his hat was gone. "What the?" Had the trapper man taken his hat, as well? He closed his eyes and threw his arm over them. Damn! He was in a hell of mess.
Then he thought of the coyote that had kept him warm during the night. He looked around him and saw no sign of the animal. Had it been a dream? He wasn't sure. Hell, he wasn't sure of anything anymore. His mind was so clouded, he felt himself drifting. Then Chris' face filled his mind. 'Watch your back,' the gunslinger had told him. 'Watch my back. Chris...wants me...to watch my back.' He turned onto his side and the pressure in his head forced him onto his back once more. 'Can't move. Can' t move. Hell, Chris, can't watch my back...too tired. Damn cowboy...don't know what he's askin'.' The image again haunted his mind and Vin knew that Chris was trying to reach him, even through the miles, forcing him to hold on. He decided he would die if he didn't do something quick. Ignoring the dizziness he forced himself up again and reached for the trap. That was when the nausea hit and the weakness made his body sag like a rag doll. He didn't even feel the ground as he fell back. "Oh, God!" he muttered as the darkness threatened to creep in once more. "God...help me."
Little did Vin Tanner know that the old saying proved true...God watches out for drunks and fools...and wayward trackers.
+ + + + + + +
When the three men were ready, they met at the edge of town, the coyote taking point. Chris lifted Vin's hat from where it hung on his saddle horn. He showed it to the coyote. "Take us to Vin," he said.
The coyote took off running...toward the canyon. The three men followed at a full gallop.
+ + + + + + +
Vin laid back on the ground, and in spite of the heat from the sun shining down on him, he shivered with cold. The words the trapper said echoed in his mind. 'Or they'll get caught in my traps, too.' Vin shut his eyes. 'Chris,' he thought. 'Don't come fer me. Whatever ya' do...don't try to find me.' He wondered how many traps had been set and where exactly they were. It didn't matter. He couldn't free himself to search for them, and even if he could, he would die of shock and thirst before he could get himself out of this canyon. He closed his eyes as the realization of what was happening hit him. He would die out here and it would be days before Chris and the others would ever find him, if they could even get to his body without being caught themselves. 'Sorry, Cowboy,' he thought with a chuckle at the irony. 'Reckon ya' won't be able to collect that five-hundred dollars after all.' He closed his eyes and felt the lure of oblivion call to him once more. It was better than waiting for death to raise its head and snatch him. 'Take care of the others fer me, God, especially Chris. He needs so much to learn how to live again. I'd be obliged if ya' honored this last request.' He didn't know if he believed in Josiah's God or not, but he knew his mother had when she was alive. If his mother believed...and if Josiah believed...then who was he to question their judgment? Suddenly, he realized the shivering had stopped. His body was relaxing into the call of peaceful sleep. He closed his eyes...knowing he would probably never open them again. 'Chris...I'm sorry. I don't want to leave ya'...not like this. Reckon I got no choice.' He heard the sound of a coyote howling in the distance. His last thought before the darkness took him was, 'Watch your back, Chris.'
+ + + + + + +
The mouth of the canyon stretched before them as they neared it. The coyote was continually looking back at them and yelping, obviously wanting them to hurry. Chris watched him closely as they followed. He felt the need to hurry engulf him. 'Vin, you bastard, you better hold on. We're coming.'
+ + + + + + +
An hour into the canyon, the coyote stopped and turned on them, snarling.
Chris and the others brought their horses to a stop. They gazed at the animal with surprise. "Why all of a sudden is he turning violent on us?" Nathan asked.
Chris shook his head. He tried to move his horse forward, when the coyote growled and snarled some more, nipping at the horse's legs. Chris' horse backed away, neighing with nervousness. "Something's wrong, that's for certain," Josiah said.
"He brought us all the way out here, encouraging us to follow, now he wants us to stop?" Nathan asked. "I just don't understand that."
Chris looked out beyond where the coyote stood. He remembered the vision he had received back in town. Vin's foot being caught in a trap. He dismounted and handed his reins to Josiah. He slowly approached the coyote. The animal stopped snarling and sat back on his haunches. Chris knelt down in front of it and held out his hand. The coyote whined at him, looking at him with pleading eyes. "He's trying to warn us. We go on foot from here," he said and stood.
"Warn us?" Nathan asked. "Warn us about what?"
Chris walked up to where Josiah sat his horse. "Do you believe in visions, Josiah?"
The preacher looked down at him, curiously. "Indeed I do, Chris. Why? Did you receive a vision?"
Chris nodded and gestured to the coyote. "For some reason I saw Vin falling after his foot was caught in a trap. I can't explain it, but I think that's the reason the coyote stopped us right here." He gestured to the canyon gully. "If there's one trap..."
"There may be more. And if your vision is true, then Vin wouldn't have seen it, which means they are well hidden."
Nathan arched his eyebrows. "They'd have to be well hidden for sure for Vin not to see them."
Chris shook his head. "I don't know any other explanation as to why the coyote would suddenly turn on us."
Nathan dismounted and tied his horse to a shrub. He grabbed his medical kit from his saddle. "As unbelievable as it sounds, I have to agree with that. The question is, how are we going to get further in without getting caught ourselves?"
Josiah looked around their immediate surroundings then dismounted, tying his horse to another shrub. "I think I have an idea." He walked over to a large dead branch and lifted it. "We use this to sweep the ground before us as we walk. Sort of like a blind man using a cane."
"And we follow the path it makes. Good thinking, Josiah," Nathan said.
The coyote yelped at them, his tail wagging.
"Looks like our guide agrees," Chris said with a smile. "Let's go." He tied his horse next to Josiah's and allowed the larger man to take point behind the coyote.
"You reckon we could at least take one horse in with us, Chris?" Nathan asked. "No telling how far Vin is and if your vision is true, we're going to need to carry him out."
"I'll carry him, Chris," Josiah said. "It's bad enough we could be risking our own legs. I'd rather not take chances with the horses."
Chris thought about it, then nodded to Nathan. "Man makes sense."
Nathan shook his head. "Hate to leave the horses here unguarded."
"Got no choice. Wasn't countin' on leavin' them behind," Chris said. "Otherwise I would have brought one of the others. Vin's going to need all of us."
Nathan shrugged. "Well, I've always been told Josiah's as strong as a horse anyway."
The preacher grinned at him. "Time to test those rumors, Brother Nathan." He proceeded to sweep the ground with the large five-foot long branch.
Chris didn't know whether to be relieved that these men believed he had seen a vision, or unnerved that they had readily accepted his explanation. He was not a man to give in to superstition, but he could not deny that there were forces at work here that obviously knew what they were doing. And wasn 't there a passage in the Bible about angels in disguise? He looked ahead and watched the coyote still leading them further into the canyon. He shook his head with wonder. His only question was...why a coyote?
+ + + + + + +
It was slow going. Chris was getting antsy as he followed behind Josiah. He kept looking ahead only to see the coyote continuing his lead. "How far did Vin travel in this canyon anyway?"
"Must have been a good reason for him to travel all this way," Nathan said. "Didn't he say that Hodgings heard animals crying out in pain? Isn't his homestead just a ways due east from here?"
"Then the traps would explain it," Josiah commented as he continued to brush the ground in front of him. Suddenly a trap snapped shut around the end of the branch causing Josiah to jump back, releasing the branch with a yell.
"Shit!" Nathan spoke out with a start. "Any one of us could have come up on that and not see it until it was too late."
Chris took a step closer as Josiah picked up the branch again. "Bear traps. Why would anyone want to use bear traps in coyote country?" the preacher asked as he broke the end off and left the trap where it lay.
"Someone without sense or conscience," Chris replied.
"And if that's what caught Vin, he's in a whole mess of trouble," Nathan said with worry. "Josiah, we've got to hurry."
Chris tensed under the tone of Nathan's voice. 'Don't give in,' he told himself. 'Worrying won't help Vin.'
Josiah placed the branch in front of him again and continued with his sweeping pattern. "Once we find Vin we can carry him back this way, since the path will all ready be cleared."
A few more feet down and another trap was triggered. This time, though, Josiah didn't release the branch. He broke off the amount that had been swallowed and turned to Chris with a furrowed brow. "We better find Vin soon or there won't be much branch left for us to sweep with."
Chris only nodded. He looked ahead to see the coyote sitting on the ground, yelping at them. "Josiah, do you see that?" He pointed.
Josiah looked ahead and nodded. "It's Vin. We found him."
"Vin!" Chris yelled out with a hand to his mouth. "Vin! Hang on! We're almost there!"
From the looks of things, Vin was about fifty yards ahead of them. Josiah sped up his sweeping motion. Two more traps were triggered on their way and each time, Josiah cursed as he broke off the branch. There was only about three feet left and he was scrunching down as he continued to sweep.
When they reached Vin's side, Josiah went to the tracker's feet and hissed at the sight of the right foot. Chris knelt behind Vin and lifted his unconscious friend onto his lap. He put a finger to Vin's neck and closed his eyes, letting out a grateful breath. "He's alive!"
"He won't be for long if we don't take care of that leg," Nathan said as he knelt on the other side of Vin, opening his medical bag.
Chris forced himself to look at where the trap had bitten into Vin's leg. He unconsciously tightened his hold around Vin's chest.
Josiah was studying the trap. "It looks bad," he said to the gunslinger, knowing Chris would understand the implication. Chris' hold tightened even more. "Don't!" he ordered. "Don't say it!"
Nathan pulled out a bottle of laudanum and exchanged worried glances with Josiah.
Chris put a hand to Vin's forehead, simultaneously feeling for a fever and brushing Vin's hair back. "He's burning up, Nathan."
Nathan looked at Vin, then his brow furrowed. "Where's his damn coat?" he asked. He looked all around him for the trademark buckskin jacket Vin always wore. He also noticed the empty holster on Vin's side. "His gun's gone, too."
Chris noticed for the first time that the coat and gun were gone. He had an idea where they might be, but that moment was not the time or place to think about what the coyote's vision had shown him.
Nathan checked Vin's eyes and felt the rhythm of his pulse. "He's in shock. Chris, take off your duster and wrap it around him, we've got to keep him warm. Just because he has a fever don't mean he's not chilled."
Chris rested Vin back against his chest as he began to pull off his duster. Vin stirred and moaned. "Chris? Where...where are ya'?"
Chris had removed one arm from his duster. He wrapped that arm around Vin's torso. "Here, Cowboy. I'm here. Nathan and Josiah...we're all here."
Vin did not open his eyes. "Stay away, Chris. Traps. Bastard...has traps...all over the place."
Chris and Nathan exchanged worried looks. "Damn fool is more worried about us than hisself," the healer said. He pulled the cork from the bottle of laudanum and put the bottle to Vin's lips. "Drink this, Vin. It'll ease some of the pain."
Vin unconsciously gulped a few swallows; then he turned his head away, coughing. "Bastard...laid traps. Peso!"
"Peso's fine, Vin," Chris assured. "He came back all right."
Vin eased against Chris. "Fool horse...runnin' off...tried to catch 'im." Vin's voice was slurring with delirium and pain.
Chris finished removing his duster and, with Nathan's help, covered Vin with it, wrapping it snug around him.
Nathan pulled his canteen from around his shoulders and pulled the cork stopper. He lifted the canteen to Vin's lips and poured just a little. The moment the cool liquid hit Vin's lips he began to stir again. "Vin?" Nathan asked. "Vin, it's Nathan. Can you hear me?"
Vin moaned. Slowly his eyes opened and he looked up at Nathan blearily. "Hey...Doc," he said with a weak smile. "What...what's goin' on?"
"Vin, your foot was caught in a trap. Do you remember?"
Vin's eyes closed. "Don't...come...after me, Chris. Traps."
Chris put his hand to Vin's forehead again and spoke out softly. "We found you, Cowboy. We found you. We knew about the traps."
Vin lifted his lids and saw Chris looking over him. "Chris? You're here?"
"That's right, Vin. We're going to get your foot out of the trap now. You hear me?"
Vin reached up behind him and grabbed the arm that was holding his head back. "Bear traps, Chris. Bastard was laying bear traps."
"I know, Vin." Chris looked up at Nathan with worry. Nathan shook his head. "He's delirious. We've got to get him back to town as fast as we can." He looked over at Josiah who was examining Vin's leg. "How bad?" he asked.
"Bad enough. Looks like the blood has dried around the teeth. Must have happened a while ago. When we pull the lips apart it's going to cause Vin to scream."
"Vin doesn't scream," Chris protested.
Josiah locked eyes with his friend. "He will this time. You're going to have to hold him fast. Nathan, I'm going to need you to pull Vin's leg out when I release the trap."
Nathan nodded. He took the bottle of laudanum. "We have to get some more into him before we even try. What I gave is already taking effect, but I want to be sure he doesn't thrash too much when we pull his leg out." He put the bottle to Vin's lips. "Swallow some more, Vin."
Vin obediently swallowed, but Chris could tell the action was reflex. "He has no idea what we're about to do, does he?"
Nathan shook his head. "Hold him tight, Chris. He tries to jerk away, it could cause his leg more damage."
"I've got him, Nathan."
Nathan turned Vin's face toward him. "Listen to me, Vin. Listen good. We' re going to pull the trap from your leg now. If you have to scream, then scream. There ain't no shame in it."
Vin smiled up at him. "Screamed when it caught me, Nathan."
Nathan smiled. "I don't doubt, Vin. Just hold on. It'll be over before you know it."
Nathan popped the cork back into the bottle and set it aside. He scurried down to Vin's feet.
Chris braced himself, wrapping his right arm around Vin's chest, clutching the tracker's left shoulder. With his left hand he pulled Vin's head back to rest against his chest. "It's gonna hurt like hell, Vin," he whispered.
Vin rested his left hand on the arm over his chest. He clutched Chris' forearm, chuckling weakly. "Plug your ears, then, Cowboy."
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