Reap a Bitter Harvest

by Deirdre

Part 9

The shot sent the syringe flying out of harm's way and left the angry victim clutching his stinging hand.

"What's the meaning of this?" He demanded, flexing his fingers.

"Get away from him before I blow your fuckin' head off." Chris snarled, keeping the gun trained on the doctor's head.

"Chris?" Buck inquired, from the bed, where he'd thrown himself at the sound of Chris's call to arms.

"You got three seconds..." Chris uttered through clenched teeth and cocked the gun, which was trained on the shaken man's forehead. "Move..."

Buck blocked Vin from the physician and saw the hatred shining from Chris's eyes. "He was in on it?" He guessed and saw Chris nod.

"He kicked Vin while they held him down..." Chris's sentence was interrupted by a body flying into him. He sat down hard on the floor and holstered his gun.

"You son-of-a-bitch." Buck raged, clutching the villain's throat and banging his head on the floor over and over.

"Buck, get off of him...Buck..." Josiah's voice boomed. He needed all of his strength to pry the six-foot wall of fury from the unconscious doctor. "Buck you're gonna kill him...Buck..."

Josiah hollered, with Chris lending physical support. But despite their combined strength, it was a soft voice from the doorway that finally broke the spell.

"You ain't an animal like him, Buck. Leave him go."

"Nate?" Buck whispered, all the strength ebbing from him. He saw the soulful dark eyes nod and then flinch as they saw Vin on the bed. Buck pushed away from the fallen physician and rose, his eyes following Nate's. "That quack said he was in shock...Is that right?"

"Vin?" Nate's voice was small and unsure. He pushed Josiah's hand of support away and limped over to the bed. . "It's okay, Vin..." He said and bit back a cry of pain as he sat on the bed and his back screamed. Vin's eyes were open, but unseeing. He was shaking and sweating, and his skin was cold. He followed Vin's unblinking gaze at the silver tipped boots. Buck and Chris lifted the body, planning on taking him to the jail. They all froze when the hoarse cry erupted.

"It's okay, now, Vin, he ain't gonna hurt you no more." Nathan tried, but Vin backed away and began to gasp. "Calm down,'re losing your breath..."

"No.No...No.Oh God..." Vin's strained voice cut through all of them. They thought he was upset at seeing one of his tormenters. They didn't realize his eyes were seeing the open wounds on Nathan's back.

"He's out again." Josiah said, reaching Nathan's side as the healer tried to comfort the now slumped tracker. "What can we do?"

"Keep him warm..." Nate said, "The rest is up to him. I'll stay and.." "No..." A chorus of voices answered.

"You get back to bed. I'm gonna get you something to eat. The sooner you two get stronger, the sooner we can go home." Josiah offered, and pulled Nathan up.

Nathan wanted to argue, but his legs buckled. The fever and lack of nutrition left him weak and the rush of excitement had worn off. He sighed and nodded, and let Josiah lead him away. "If he gets worse..."

"I'll get you." Josiah promised. "Go on," He nodded to Buck and Chris. "Get that trash in the jail and wire the circuit judge. We'll drop him off on the way home."

Vin heard the shuffling footsteps. He kept his eyes closed and waited for them to leave. He felt a set of hands, adjust him in the bed and draw the blanket up. He heard Chris Larabee's soft grunt and felt a hand brush the tangled hair off his face. The hand wavered for a moment, resting then disappeared. "Get another blanket, Buck, he's freezing." A second blanket was placed on him and he felt a cold cloth wipe his face. He waited until the footsteps disappeared and opened his eyes. The room was empty. He pulled the blankets closer, unable to get warm. He furrowed his brows, concentrating. Nathan would have enough painful days ahead, as his own wounds, external and internal, emotional and physical, healed. He didn't need any more guilt or worries or burdens. So with a deep sigh, Vin Tanner decided to bury the horror of what he done. He couldn't...wouldn't hurt Nathan anymore. He closed his eyes and slipped away, hoping the horrible dreams would end.

Five weeks later, Four Corners

The winter winds whipped through the town, sending dust and debris down the boardwalk. The gray sky seemed to match the mood of the figure that walked against the wind, pulling his collar up. He eyed the road that led south and paused, before heading inside.

Four sets of eyes looked up as the door slammed. He gave a slight nod and headed for the stove in the corner of the nearly deserted saloon. He opened the small door and warmed his hands, before grabbing a tin mug from the shelf overhead and pouring a cup of coffee. He paused and held the cup out and the scarlet-armed gambler complied, pouring a healthy shot of whiskey into the steaming brew.

"Thanks." Chris nodded, taking a seat alone near the window. Buck and Josiah exchanged a slight smile as Chris's eyes flicked to the road again.

"Mama Hen's got her feathers ruffled over her lost chicks." Josiah smirked, and tossed his cards down. "Ezra, you give cheatin' a bad name. I'm out."

"Nathan?" Ezra inquired, of the healer lost in thought.

"You in Brother?" Josiah tapped his sleeve.

"Huh?" Nathan blinked, and looked at his hand, "I'll take two." He tossed down two cards and resumed his brooding. He knew the others were dealing with the uncomfortable change in atmosphere as best they could. But he agreed with the penetrating green eyes that were hooded over the coffee mug. He was worried too. Vin had been overly compliant during his recovery from his injuries. He'd stayed in his room, rested and obeyed Josiah's orders, through the recovering healer, to the letter. They all noticed how quiet he'd become, and painfully withdrawn. It was only in the last week, his broken ribs had healed sufficiently enough to ride a horse again. He explained his long absences by saying he was making up for lost patrols, when the others covered for him. Deep down they all sensed the truth, that he was hiding from them. Each trip lasted longer, and recently he'd been gone for two days. He knew what worried Chris the most, that one day the tracker would take off for good, trying to escape whatever burden he still carried.

Nathan felt it the strongest, Vin wouldn't meet his eyes for more than a minute or so, before averting his gaze. He'd tried a half dozen times to talk to him and draw him out, but Vin clammed up. The dark-skinned healer had been ill for over two weeks and the strong medicine had kept him in bed and asleep. But once he was ambulatory, he'd gone to see Vin daily. There in the soft folds of the afternoon, with the sunlight giving the Texan's room some warmth, he'd spoken of his ordeal, the nightmares, the flashbacks and the pain. He'd hoped his own confession would draw the quiet man out, but Vin only withdrew further. Now Nathan feared he'd made the situation worse. Vin had yet to speak of the ordeal and Nate had a strong feeling that the lean buffalo hunter was hiding something.

"Two bits to you, Nate." Buck said, tossing two coins into the pile. He eyed Ezra, who laid a hand on the healer's coat.

"Mr. Jackson, are you alright?"

"No I ain't alright." Nate growled and tossed his cards away. He threw the chair back and stood, glaring at the eyes trained on him. "Quit starin' at me like that...I tried to help him...thought by telling him about the nightmares I'd had..."

"Nobody's blaming you, Nate." Buck replied, "It ain't Vin's way to open up. We've all tried to reach out to him, nobody more than you did. He knows there's a hand out, it's up to him to take it."

"Buck's right, Nate." Josiah said, "It might take him awhile, but I believe he'll come around. He's used to falling into Mother Nature's bosom when he's hurting. Having this new family has him rattled."

"That is precisely the reason why he is taking long travails through the wilderness. That is his way of healing. Perhaps Mr. Dunne's presense might alter his ways." Ezra suggested of the youthful sheriff who'd ridden out with Vin Tanner earlier that morning. The rest were surprised that Vin didn't turn away J.D.'s offer for company.

Buck, Ezra and Josiah continued their game. Nathan took the coffeepot and a mug to Chris's table and sat down. He filled each mug and glanced at the blond's profile. He thought back on the conversation he'd shared with Vin the night by the river. He wondered if Vin and Chris had resolved their differences.

"I wish I could find the missing pieces..." He said dejectedly.

"You had enough to do staying alive." Chris replied, taking a sip of the coffee. "Don't beat yourself up over this, Nate. We push Vin too hard and he'll ride out."

"I'm afraid if we don't push hard enough, we'll lose him anyway." Nate eased forward and rubbed his face, "I need to know, Chris."

Chris turned and saw the lingering question in the other man's eyes. "I know the feeling...," He said quietly, thinking of the angry confrontation in the saloon the night before Vin left.

"You and him resolve your problem?" Nate prodded and saw Chris shrug.

"I don't know, Nate." He sighed and thought on his time with Vin. The first two weeks after the attack, Vin slept most of the time. The fact he didn't fight the orders to rest or the medicine was the first clue that he was hiding from them. Chris tried talking to him, but got a wall of silence and an empty blue gaze. Not wanting for force the frail psyche, he'd pulled back and given the younger man space. Vin would come to him when he was ready. For the first time since he'd known the Texan, he couldn't get a sense of him. Once he was out of bed, he'd disappear all day., usually up to the roof. Now that he'd resumed his duties, he was gone early and back after dark. He'd slip into the saloon for a beer and sit alone. If questioned, he'd give a short, polite response, but they all felt the icy wall he'd built. Chris didn't know if Vin had forgiven him or not, the tracker wouldn't talk about it. "I just don't know..." He sighed.

+ + + + + + +

Vin peered out of the thicket of trees where he and J.D. had taken shelter from the windstorm. For nearly an hour they'd been hunkered down, waiting for the severe winds to halt. It was dying down and they'd be able to resume their trek back to town soon. He pulled his hat down and his scarf up, covering his face from the flying debris. He felt J.D.'s eyes bearing in on him.

"I ain't gonna bolt, J.D." He growled over the wind and saw the embarrassed youth turn away.

Why wouldn't they leave him alone? Every time he stepped into the saloon, every eye was on him, watching his every more. The longest week in his life was the week before he'd been given the okay to ride again. Everywhere he went in town, the eyes flicked on him, whispered conversations behind covered mouths trailed in his wake. The whole town knew about the incident and it made him uncomfortable.

He lived with the horrid secret and the buried pain didn't go away, like he'd hoped. He struggled to make eye contact with his friends. From Nathan, they knew all about that night, and their silence and strange glances confirmed his fears. Nathan was the worst. Vin cringed, recalling the soulful eyes and painful voice that afternoon. The former slave sat by his bedside and told him about his past and the abusive dreams that were relived due to their ordeal. That had made the pain worse; that because of him, Nathan went through hell all over again. Each day was getting longer and longer and his friends were becoming harder to hold. Especially Chris, who's faith he'd lost to begin with, now after what happened to wonder his best friend was avoiding him.

"Riders coming, Vin." J.D. called out.

Vin pulled out his spyglass and followed the wool-clothed arm of the sheriff. He ran several yards to a rocky outcrop and dropped onto his belly, wincing as his still tender ribs made contact with the hard surface. He peered through the glass and saw six men approaching. He studied each face and paused on the leader, a large man with an eye-patch.

"Shit..." He swore, recognizing a former comrade.

"You know 'em?" J.D. asked, dropping by Vin's side, weapon drawn.

"Yeah..." Vin shot back. "They're trouble...big trouble..." He handed J.D. the glass "See that feller with the eye patch?" He paused and saw J.D. nodding. "'s Pritchett. I used t'hunt with 'im 'til he got greedy. He's a cold hearted, murderin' son-of-a-bitch."

"What happened?" J.D. asked, returning the glass.

"There was four of us, hired by the Army t' find two men accused of murderin' an officer and his kin. They left a trail of bodies all the way t' Mexico. The army was givin' us one hundred dollars apiece to find 'em. So we tracked 'em and caught up with 'em near Juarez. On the way back, Pritchett decided t' pad his pockets. He killed the other two fellers while I was guardin' the prisoners. Slit their throats. Only reason I didn't die was that one of them made a face, he seen Pritchett's bloody knife and figured he was fixin' on doin' 'im right there. He cut me up good and I damn neared died. He butchered the prisoners and took the bodies back. Got the whole four hundred."

"How come he didn't kill you?"

"He thought he did...I learnt about fakin' death from the Kiowa's..." Vin seethed, "I owe that son-of-a-bitch and he's gonna pay."

"There's too many Vin...we're outgunned."

"This ain't yer fight, Kid." Vin stood and headed for his horse. "Git back t' town."

"No way." J.D. argued, heading on his horse. "Don't talk crazy."

"I ain't gonna be responsible for anybody else gettin' go."


"J.D. we ain't got time..." Vin's sentence was cut off by the rapport of gunfire. "Shit...get yer damn head down. That hat of yers is like wavin' a damn flag." Vin screamed, riding into the onslaught, and drawing fire away from J.D. who was trapped and in full view. He saw the dark head come up, gun in hand and cursed. He drew out his gun and fired, taking down one of the gang. He jumped off his horse and scrambled behind a group of rocks. He should have never agreed to letting J.D. ride with him today. But the Kid had been so persistent, yapping and spinning his damn gun. He raised his head and fired again, ducking as several bullets flew by.

"Who the hell is shooting at us?" the man next to Pritchett asked. " hear me? That shot got Peterson right between the eyes. Who shoots that good from that far away?"

"Tanner...looks like he found us first." The leader replied, eyeing the rocks ahead "Split up...and flank 'em. Somebody's shooting to the west of those rocks. He ain't alone."

" You gonna kill 'im ain't ya?" the gunman asked of the bounty they'd been seeking.

"Yeah..." Pritchett laughed, spotting the familiar long hair and coat of Vin Tanner. "and this time, he'll stay dead. Get going..."

The gang leader's command was cut off as the man he was speaking to, toppled off his horse, dead before he hit the ground. He directed the two of the others to find the second shooter, Tanner was his.

J.D. was reloading when he heard the thundering hooves approaching, he dove behind a tree and winced as a bullet tore into his right bicep, leaving his shooting arm useless. He saw two riders coming in fast and flattened himself against the tree. They split up and began searching for him. He saw the unprotected back of one of the gang, just a few feet away. His hazel eyes cautiously peered around and saw the other one not looking. He sprung, taking the smaller man down and using his two fingers to poke the man's eyes out. He kicked the gun away and grabbed for the knife in the man's belt. A short struggle ensued, he felt the blade nick his ribcage, before he was able to bury it in the desperado's chest.

"Ciego...where are you?"

J.D. slumped in relief as the remaining man, just a few feet away, turned his horse and rode towards where the voice came from.

"You find him?"

"No, he's slicker than an snake in bacon grease." Pritchett replied. "But's he's mine...I heard he's shacked up in Four Corners. You find the other shooter?"

"No, and he took out Ciego."

"No matter...Let's go."

J.D. didn't realize he'd drifted off until he felt a stab of pain as pressure was applied to his arm.

"OW!" He jerked his eyes open and saw a pair of irate blue ones bearing down on him.

Vin didn't say a word, he'd wrapped J.D.'s arm tightly and glanced at the slight slash on the youth's ribcage. A few inches difference and he'd be taking a body back to town. He felt his head hammering and pulled J.D. roughly to his feet. "Why didn't ya listen t' me?" He growled, shoving the youth towards his horse. He managed to get J.D. into the saddle and approached his own mount.

"You got no room to talk." J.D. fired back, cradling his throbbing arm. "This is all your fault."

Vin flinched, his foot froze in the stirrup. Another one of his friend's who'd lost faith in him. Another one who'd nearly been killed because of him. Vin heard J.D.'s words but not the intention. The youthful sheriff was referring to the tracker's decision to split up and ride into the firestorm, insteading of heading towards town and getting help or taking the high ground and getting the drop on them. But Vin didn't hear it that way, he heard loss of faith and trust. The pain inside flared up again, and he saw Nathan's body tied to the tree and that bald bastard's face and then...

"It wasn't an accident," J.D. interrupted his revisitation of the nightmare, "They were gunning for you. They're headed for Four Corners. If you hadn't been so selfish, we could have nabbed all of them, not put the town in danger." J.D. fired. Vin flinched as the youth rode by, racing towards home.

Part 10

Buck was crossing the street, when he saw the riders coming. The winds died down and he was able to peer clearly at the approaching pair. One figure was slumped over and riding slow. He recognized the hat and took immediate action.

"Nathan...J.D.'s hurt..." He screamed back towards the saloon and took off up the street.

He managed to grab the reins and saw the youth's bloody sleeve and shirt. He helped him dismount and glanced back to Vin, who appeared fine. "What the hell happened?" He shouted angrily at the all-to-cool tracker.

"Don't talk around me." J.D. demanded, shoving Buck's assistance away, "We ran into bounty hunters outside town. Six of them..."

"Six?" Buck frowned, "Where at?"

"Near Rebel Pass. We got three of them but..."

"Rebel Pass? They were comin' from the south?" Buck drilled Vin Tanner and saw a slight nod. "What the hell were you thinking? The Kid could have been killed. You were outnumbered and outgunned..."

"Shut up Buck...I ain't in the mood fer one of yer lectures." Vin tossed back, sliding off his horse.

"Frankly, Vin," Buck shoved his index finger in the tracker's chest. "I'm a little sick and tired of your damn moods. You ain't been right since..."

"Go on and say it." Vin seethed, "It ain't like I don't know yer thinkin' it..."

"Enough!" J.D. screamed coming between the two irate men. He turned to Buck and glared hard. "I ain't your 'Kid' or your 'Son', Buck," He growled his temper rising. He pulled his coat back and pulled on his star. "I'm Sheriff John Daniel Dunne and I'm damn proud of this badge. It's my duty to protect this town from Pritchett, the James Gang or any other murdering bastards that ride through here. So back off and let me do my job." He said loudly through clenched teeth and fiery hazel eyes. Buck stood in stunned silence, and J.D. turned to Vin. "...and you...What the hell was that stunt you pulled out there? Riding into the line of fire? A better plan would have been to ride towards town and get the high ground, we could have taken them out. It was a stupid thing to do...riding right at him. Now there's three killers headed this way."

"You rode towards them?" Buck grimaced, "That how he got shot...'cause you fucked up? A few inches difference and we'd be burying him. You selfish bastard..." Buck lunged, only to hit a black cotton wall.

"What happened?" Chris demanded, with Josiah and the others behind him. He glanced at the three angry red faces, with chests heaving in anger. "Somebody talk to me..." He growled, "Buck?"

"Ask him...he's got all the answers." Buck spat at the sulking sharpshooter, making his disgust clear.

"Come on, J.D., let me get a look at your arm." Nathan said, leading the angry sheriff away.

"I'm okay Nate, it went right through. Hurts like hell though." J.D. replied, wiggling his fingers to Ezra, who was flanking him. "Gimme that fancy whiskey you got in your coat."

"It's a little early in the day to be imbibing..."

"Shut up, Ezra or I'll lock you up..." J.D. warned and took the silver flask.

"On what charge?" The Conman steadied the swaying youth.

"How much time do you have?" J.D. shot back, taking a good swig and giving Nate a grin.

Chris watched them depart, Buck was trailing behind them, flexing his fists. "Alright Vin...what happened out there?"

"We was hold up a few miles beyond Rebel Pass, 'cause of the storm. We run into some trouble...bounty hunters..." Vin paused, dropping his head and biting back the wave of guilt pains that assaulted him.

"...and..." Chris prodded.

"...and J.D. got shot." Vin ended the conversation curtly, eyeing the horizon.

"Don't even think it," Chris answered the unspoken action. "You're not going after them. It's getting dark and you've been out all day. Get something to eat," He issued then drilled icy green lasers directly at the weary Texan. "...and then we're gonna talk."

Vin's head jerked up and he met the chilling green eyes of Chris Larabee. The air suddenly got colder and the eyes seemed to be accusing him. He saw a crowd gathering drawn by the sight of the bloodied sheriff. He felt the eyes on him...and the buildings seem to be closing in. He glanced back at the Larabee glare and turned away. Arguing would do no good. He was tired and hungry. He'd head out at dawn and find Pritchett, before any more of his friends blood stained his hands.

"You should be resting." Nathan argued, slipping the bandaged arm into a sling.

"I'm fine. I want send some wires around, find out about this guy Pritchett." J.D. slipped his hat on and headed for the door. "I want to be prepared, I think they're headed here after Vin."

"I want to talk to you J.D." Chris said as the sheriff hurried towards the telegraph office.

"Don't try to defend was a stupid stunt he pulled." J.D. flared. "If he wants to ride solo again, so be it. But then he's gotta leave. We should have worked as a team out there...but no...he took off alone and rode right at them. Goddamn fool."

"Rode at them?" Chris grabbed the youth's shoulder and stopped his hasty pace. "Are you sure?"

"Does this look like I'm sure?" J.D. voice rose as he patted his injured arm. "He damn near got me killed. Buck's right...he's hasn't been thinking straight since he got hurt. You're his best friend, you talk to him. Pritchett's hunting him and headed this way."

"Who's Pritchett?" Chris waited while J.D. wrote out the message and gave the telegraph operator instructions.

"Some bounty hunter Vin rode with a long time ago. There were four of them bringing a couple of murderers in; they were hired by the Army with a four hundred dollar payoff. After they caught them, Pritchett turned on his partners, killed three and thought he'd killed Vin too. I guess he caught wind of the bounty out on Vin. We nailed three of them, but if he'd waited...listened to reason. Shit..." J.D. kicked the wall in frustration.

"Okay," Chris sighed, squeezing the younger man's shoulder. "You let me know if you hear any more about this guy. You get a look at him?"

"Yeah...tall...dark...wearing an eye patch...ugly as a toad."

Vin headed for the roof to think. It was dark when he finally stood, and sighed. He wandered along the rooftops and found his hiding spot. He'd discovered the long forgotten empty attic over the billiard room at the end of the street, the first day he'd been sprung from bed. He straightened the room up and moved the old, discarded and broken furniture out of the way. An overstuffed sofa and old marble table were by the window. He dropped his hat and gunbelt onto the table and sank into the sofa. He ran a shaky hand through his tangled hair. His insides were churning and he couldn't sort out the muddled thoughts in his head. First Chris, then Nathan and now J.D. Who would be next? How high was the price for giving up your freedom? If he'd never ridden into this town... The weariness of the long day and his lack of sleep for several nights prior caught up to the troubled tracker. He eased this throbbing head back and fell into a restless sleep.

Josiah was surprised to see Chris Larabee in the saloon. Dawn was barely broken and usually Chris was the last one to arrive for breakfast. The ex-minister noted that the gunslinger had eaten already and was sipping coffee. Ezra was just arriving from the kitchen, bearing a plate overladen with ham and eggs.

"Mornin' Ezra." Josiah nodded.

"Mr. Sanchez." Ezra returned and sat down. He exchanged a look with the eldest, his gaze flicking to Chris. He saw Josiah nod, understanding.

"His horse is still here." Josiah noted as approached the leader.

"I've looked all over town...where the hell is he?" Chris muttered, annoyed.

"That boy could give a ghost lessons in disappearing." Josiah said as he

+ + + + + + +

The livery was empty when Vin entered and saddled his horse. His growling stomach reminded him that he'd slept through dinner. He had food in his wagon, and headed over that way. Mrs. Potter left him a sandwich and cookies every morning. Sure enough, there were wrapped in a large blue kerchief. Two sandwiches, an apple, a small peach tart and a half dozen cookies. He wolfed down the first sandwich and the tart, washing it down with water from his canteen. He carefully rewrapped the rest, saving it for the road. He'd been awake for a couple hours, sorting through his troubles. First on the list was finding Prichett before anybody else was killed. His heart wasn't in this job or town anymore. He felt all alone, despite being surrounded by the men he'd grown to admire, men who now talked about him in whispers, and hooded accusing eyes. He wouldn't leave without saying goodbye...but he couldn't stay. He packed his saddlebags and had one foot in the stirrup when he heard a creak as the livery door shut. He wheeled, gun drawn and saw the small boy back up, frightened.

"Billy..." He hushed, bending over, hand on his knee. He holstered his gun and rose up, shaking his head. "I almost shot ya...Ya know better than t' sneak up like that."

"Sorry." the boy said tugging Vin's sleeve. "You ready to go?"

"Go?" Vin scowled, eyes darting. "Go where?"

"Fishing." Billy replied, pointing to the two poles by the door. "You promised, remember? You said as soon as you were better..."

"Aw, hell." Vin slapped the saddle. He squatted down and put both hands on the boy's shoulders. "I'm sorry, Billy. I know I promised ya...but I can't go fishin' today. I got important business outside town. I bet Chris'll take ya...later in the week."

"But you promised..."

Vin sighed and stood up, ruffling the blond hair. He had promised to take the boy fishing. Billy had been tagging along with him on Saturday mornings. He'd been teaching the Travis boy how to track, read a trail, read the sky and play his harmonica; and having fun doing it.

"I'm sorry, Billy. Ya know I wouldn't ever bust a promise, right?" He hesitated and saw the head drop. "There's some bad men outside town. I gotta find 'em" "The ones that shot J.D.?" Billy asked, eyeing his friend.


"My Mama said J.D. got hurt because of you. Is that right?" Billy asked, wide-eyed.

The question caught Vin off guard and he rocked back on his heels. Mary Travis blamed him too?

"Yer Ma told ya that?" He whispered.

"Sort of ...I heard her talking to Mr. and Mrs. Ford. They came in to put an ad in the paper. So did you?"

" was an accident Billy. I'd never hurt J.D. He's my friend. I gotta go." He said brusquely, jumping on the horse.

Billy paused and thought for a moment. Vin had his sad eyes on, Billy always knew when Vin was sad. Usually he'd heard Vin playing his harmonica. Billy's bedroom window was near where the tracker's wagon sat. Lots of times at night he'd hear Vin playing. He'd peer out of the window and sometimes if the moon was bright, he could see his eyes. Lately, since Chris and the others brought him and Nathan back hurt, Vin's eyes had been sad all the time. He didn't play his harmonica anymore. Vin needed a friend too, he decided, eyeing the fishing poles. He grabbed them and headed out, following the tracks left by Vin's horse.

+ + + + + + +

Vin rode slowly, letting the morning sun give him a little warmth. The demons wrestling within him were waging a major brawl. The crack that started in Ella Gaines Dining Room and split wider the night with Nate had nearly busted open with J.D. and now Addie Ford. The Texan knew Mary Travis would never gossip, it wasn't her way. Nor would she speak ill of him or any of the seven, not to Addie Ford anyhow. Clint and Addie Ford lived just outside town. Addie would like to believe she was better than most folks, especially him. She gave him a pain and he avoided her and her sharp tongue. They'd no doubt seen J.D. and heard what happened. That was the only reason she was at the Clarion, to bad mouth him to Mary and try to get some dirt. With her tongue wagging, she'd no doubt badmouthed him all over town already. Billy most likely overheard her. He wasn't far from town when the first shot came. He rolled off Diablo and hit the ground, rolling into a clump of brush. Scrambling for cover, he eyed a cluster of rocks and a log by the riverbed. He eyed the terrain and a shot whizzed by, taking his hat off. He gaged the area where it originated from and returned fire. He heard a cry and saw a body tumble from it's perch in a tree. He felt several bullets fly past him, as he dove for cover behind a cluster of rocks.


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