Reap a Bitter Harvest

by Deirdre

Part 15
Midnight, at the Saloon

"Ezra, if you don't get to bed I'm gonna..."

"Save your breath, Mr. Jackson." The exhausted and frazzled Gambler replied, "I'm not budging until Mr. Larabee returns. There are vital matters to be discussed."

Nathan shook his head and eyed the worn group. Buck's dark blue eyes were barely open; he was slumped in a chair, his long legs resting on another one. Josiah was lost in thought, his chin perched on his folded fingers, elbows resting on the table. J.D. was at the stove, warming his hands. The youthful lawman couldn't sit still. He paced the tavern and the street outside, looking for hope to ride into town. Then there was Ezra. The Southerner looked awful. He'd been out the longest and his body showed the wear and tear from too many hours in the saddle. The normally pristine appearance was ragged. The coat and shirt dusty, hair rumpled and face shadowed. The green eyes were fighting to stay open. He sipped on a brandy and kept those burning eyes trained on the doors.

Nathan saw the weariness in those seagreen eyes fade and the slumped shoulders straighten. He saw Buck sit forward and knew before he turned around. The voice was hollow and the body that followed it was somber.

"No luck?"

"Well, well, look what the wind blew in..." Ezra's voice dripped with disdain.

"Ezra," Josiah warned, then fingered his pocket. "Lady Luck didn't desert us entirely. Vin was here."

"Where?" Chris eyed the Saloon and then Josiah's eyes.

"Sometime after we left, had to be after dark."

"Couldn't have been here long. I would have seen him." J.D stammered, angry that he was left to guard the town and missed the most precious cargo.

"It's not your fault, J.D." Buck cautioned, reading the hazel eyes. "Vin's slicker than a shadow...At least we know he's alive."

"Somebody saw him?" Chris said, taking a bottle of whiskey from behind the bar. He slid into a chair next to Buck and saw Nathan's wavering hand appear on the table, bearing a note. He had the shot of amber liquid halfway to his lips and froze at the familiar childish scrawl. "Where did that come from?"

"Me and Buck got back about an hour ago. I checked the clinic and found this over the bed where Billy was. He took some bandages, carbolic and food." Nathan scoffed, tossing the coins on the table. "...even paid for 'em." He smacked the table hard and caused them all to jump. "Why the hell can't I remember? What's hauntin' him so bad it's chasin' him out of town?"

"You were nearly beaten to death, Nathan, I'd say you were busy tryin' to stay alive." Buck offered.

"Buck's right, Nate. It's not your fault." J.D. added, glaring at Chris.

The frustrated leader read the note again, outloud this time. "Dont wery...jest a bitty cut. I am sorry Nate...I cant..." Chris squinted at the crossed out word, "He crossed out the word 'forgive'..." He paused and saw Nathan's face darken. "...what I dunn to ya...the winds callin me...Vin."

"Damn stubborn sorry-assed..." Nate choked, clenching both fists.

"How did it come to this?" Chris uttered, running a hand over his weary face.

"Hah!" Ezra snorted in disgust. "Care to borrow a mirror?"

"That ain't gonna solve anything." Josiah warned, eyeing the loathing in Ezra's gaze. "We all have sins to atone for, Ezra. Chris's day will come and I have faith in Vin."

"Ezra, you were the last one to see him. What happened in the church?" Buck asked.

"I'll recant his painful testimony," The Southerner's voice was soft and his drawl pronounced, "As it is burned into my memory. But that is not where his flight began." He paused, and drilled the green eyes across from him, not hiding his anger.

Chris was surprised at the show of unbridled anger in the Conman's face. It was rare for Ezra to show any part of his real self. He kept his emotions guarded better than the gold at Fort Knox. But now, as the witching hour passed by and Satan hosted his midnight ball, those green eyes burned bright. Chris flinched as Ezra's unspoken message of disgust and repulsion soared across the table. He drained his shot, hoping it would offset the pain in his chest.

"I encountered Mr. Tanner in the back of the church. He sought sanctuary there, and I would have missed him, if not for the haunting words that emoted from behind the altar...and I quote:

The crows fly south against the wind. The land they flee is cold and barren.

The mocking soil, once rich and firm, has dried, withering my tender soul.

The reaper's scythe is raised high above my head; his faceless cloak is calling. I will not turn away. For the blood of the innocents will not dry upon my hands.

The time has come to reap a bitter harvest."

"What does that mean?" J.D. frowned, shivering as Ezra's chilling delivery.

"It means he thinks he's lost his soul. That what the reference is to the Reaper." Josiah noted, amazed at the moving poet that lurked within the buckskinned Texan.

"He was, at the time I found him, rubbing his hands, trying to rid himself of the 'blood of the lambs'" Ezra's voice nearly broke and Josiah rested a hand on his shoulder. "You have no idea how painful...he was totally unaware I was even there. I've never encountered..." Ezra stopped and swallowed.

"Shit..." Nathan slid his chair back and stood, fist clenched and eyes hot.

"Mr. Jackson...Nathan." Ezra's voice was surprisingly calm. "You have to reason to bear any guilt. It began with the encounter in the Widow's web with Mr. Larabee."

Chris's face smoldered as he felt every eye trained on him. He glared at all of them, trying to work up a defense. "I tried talking to him..."

"Not hard enough." Ezra spat. "He was suspicious from the moment he met her. He signed on, but would not touch her money. His only mission was to protect his family, his lingering doubts about her only grew stronger. It should have been obvious to you, he kept his distance from her during the whole trip. He patrolled the property and slept under the stars. He vocalized his doubts after that gang's first visit...and sought confirmation in Red Fork."

"Spit it out, Ezra, before you choke on it." Chris commanded, seeing the soft hands with a death grip on the imported brandy bottle.

"Why did you spurn him? He offered undeniable proof of his suspicions, confirmation of her ulterior motives. How could you wound him like that? You chose to bed her instead? Your conduct was not only disgraceful but disgusting."

"Enough..." Buck growled. "That's six weeks gone by and won't change anything. Chris knows..."

"Chris can speak for himself." The tense blond interjected. "I fucked up. Is that what you want to hear Ezra?" He glared at all of them. "I'm sorry...I was so pissed off at him...standing there telling me that I'd been had. I felt like a fool. I wanted to prove he was wrong...prove...shit" He hissed, smacking a fist to the table.

"Prove to yourself." Josiah provided. "You were angry at yourself, because Vin confronted you with what deep down you knew was true. All the other clues...the clothes in your closet that she lied about...conveniently turning up on the anniversary of Sarah and Adam. You denied your inner voice..."

"The more she pushed me to stay, the harder I fought to...against myself." Chris sighed, "I felt such a rage inside when he left..." He shook his head.

"You had a funny way of showing it." J.D. scoffed, recalling the groping and lust he'd seen the couple share before they departed for Ella's bedroom.

"It wasn't pleasure, J.D. I didn't feel a was primal..." He teethed. "I felt it building inside and it exploded when I saw that room..."

"Why didn't you tell him? He rode himself hard for over a week to find her. He stood there in the street and you didn't say a word." Buck accused. "He needed to hear it...from you."

"He thinks you lost faith in him., that his word isn't good enough. He told you the truth...knowing how hard it would hit you, because he had such faith in you. And you turned on him. He offered himself and you..." Nate was cut off by the guilty leader.

"...stabbed in him in the gut." Chris sighed. "Jesus..."

"Then there was the horrendous incident with those miscreants," Ezra stated of the brutal beating Nathan and Vin sustained. "There is a large piece of that evening that Mr. Tanner harbors an unexplainable guilt over."

"I got a sinking feeling he thinks we blame him...somehow." Josiah mused.

"What?" Nathan frowned. "What the hell could be that bad, that it would destroy him? None of that was his doing."

"Guilt" Buck sighed, draining his beer. "Nobody wears guilt like that boy does. I think Josiah's right. Vin knows something...the missing piece and whatever it is, he thinks we blame him."

"...that I blame him." Nate scoffed, shirking off Josiah's hand on his shoulder.

"Combining those episodes, adding the one with J.D. and the bounty hunters." Ezra related, tensions rising. "The injury to Billy followed by Mrs. Travis's vulgar epitaph and those arrows slung by the vultures in town...would be too much for any man to bear," The Southerner dictated, and sighed deeply. "...even a Tanner." He stood and glared with open disgust at Chris Larabee. "But it was your deafening silence that unsheathed the fatal shot." His livid green eyes drilled the other's until the blond head averted. With a nod to his comrades, he made his way upstairs.

"Judge is coming tomorrow. He's got information on Cavendish. He wants us here at noon for a meeting." J.D. relayed, breaking the uncomfortable silence.

"I'm riding out at dawn." Chris said, taking a long swig from the bottle. "I don't know when I'll be back. I'm headed to the shack to pack. "

"You're not gonna find him Chris." Josiah eyed the guilt-laden leader. "He left me a note too, with the stuff from his wagon. He asked me to keep it safe for him."

"Where is it?" Chris squinted, blinking the hopelessness away.

"Sorry, Chris," The preacher denied, "I can't betray his confidence."

"Did he tell you what happened with Nate? Why he left?" The leader demanded.

"He didn't disclose anything new. His heart and soul are broken...damaged. He needs to heal." the preacher spoke and rose. He saw the fleeting form of hope slip from the green eyes and out into the night. He faced Chris with kinder eyes than the others. "You hurt him, Chris. He's all mixed up inside, and churning with sorrow. Vin's a wild child, born and bred in the wilderness. That's the only mother he's ever known. It's her comfort he's seeking." He advised and gripped the dusty, black shirt in front of him. He tapped Chris's chest and offered a small smile. "Despite it all, he's still there. He'll always be there. He knows that...and he needs you understand that."

"It hurts like hell." Chris hissed, at the doorway, only within the preacher's range.

"Yeah, I guess it does." Josiah paused "Seems to me, Vin's not the only one who needs to heal."

"I can't lose him, Josiah..." Chris admitted, voice shaky. He gained comfort from the kind blue-gray eyes that faced him. "I won't lose him." He said determined, then tossed his head up and the green eyes glared again. "I gotta find him...Mother Nature be damned."

Josiah and Buck exchanged a weary smile at the small growl from the leader as he disappeared into the darkness. Buck clapped a hand on the larger man's back and followed J.D. over to the hotel. Josiah glanced back and as Chris and his horse headed for shelter from the internal storm clouds that hovered around him.

Part 16

Aurora's gentle, golden fingers stroked his face, but it did little to take the pain away. The bleary-eyed blond sighed and left her warm embrace. He yawned as he rolled out of bed and shuffled to the kitchen. Grabbing the tin coffeepot, he stepped outside and glanced at the new day, before heading for the pump. He spashed the icy water on his face and neck, welcoming the harsh slap. The green eyes slowly caressed the landscape, searching for a miracle. They ached to see a black horse with a white blaze and the cocky Texan who rode him so well. Sighing, he returned to the cabin and filled the speckled pot with coffee. He stoked the fire and waited for the coffee to boil. His eyes glanced at the crude mantle and spotted the missing bottle. Frowning, he turned around and spotted the discarded tins on the table. He only took one step, when he saw the bloody towel. He grabbed it and fingered the crusty, maroon stains.

"Vin?" he whispered and balled the towel up, flinging it into the fire. "Shit..." he kicked the table and sent one of the cans rolling across the floor. The whole time they'd been out searching, Vin had been here. Despite the paralyzing pain inside, the aching tracker had sought harbor in his home. He felt every bit of Vin's desolation hovering in the room yet. Some part of Chris Larabee, way down deep inside, felt a flicker of hope, that the hurt blue eyes had found some comfort here. While changing into fresh clothes, he spotted the strips of fabric and blood on the sheets of his bed. He pushed the thought of Vin's lonely vigil the night before from his mind. He went back into the hearth area to get his guns...and saw the note. He closed his eyes, torn between his need to read and his fear of reading. Sighing, he took a step forward, and sat at the small table. It was brief and the scrawl he was so proud of, lanced right through his heart. He thought back to their harsh words in the saloon.

"Four stinkin' words...Vin..." he mumbled. "That all you could afford?"

He left the note and brought the coffee to the table. He sipped on the hot brew and read the Texan's words again. He worked up a weak smile, remembering the day that the cocky, ex-bounty hunter first uttered them. It had been only a few weeks after they met. A hot, spell made the tempers in town shorter. Water was scarce and the ranchers were getting anxious. That anxiety spilled over into town. One night, a drunken hand from one of the nearby ranches got to teasing Vin. The brute was Josiah's size , maybe bigger and Vin traded verbal blows with him, until he struck a nerve. The brute charged and slammed Vin's head into the wall, by Ezra. The dazed tracker stood on wobbly legs and tried to fight back, shoving off the Southerner, only to hit a black cotton wall. Josiah and Buck had already dispensed of the lout, and that only made Vin madder. He smacked away Chris's hands and tried to follow. He shoved the interfering blond and told him irately to 'Go t' Hell'.

Chris sipped his coffee and smiled again, recalling the fire in the blue eyes that faced him. He'd calmly assessed that look and told the feisty tracker 'Thought we were going together?' Vin's face screwed up as he mulled the words and felt the steadying force that gripped him. He sat down, nodded and then narrowed his eyes at Chris's stoic face. He poured two shots of whiskey and handed one to Chris. The cocky grin that followed was one that Chris Larabee would come to appreciate, along with the wry sense of humor that often preceded it. He eyed the remnants of his coffee and stood. Carrying the note over to the wall shelf near the table, he placed it carefully next to a photograph of Sarah and Adam. He raised his mug and tapped Vin's note, recalling the words the younger man spoke that night, prior to the cocky grin. He eyed Vin's scrawl and repeated those words, now issued in lead on paper.

"Until that time, Cowboy..."

Noon, Four Corners

Orrin Travis stepped off the stage and brushed the dust from his jacket. The driver tossed down his bag and he made his way to the Clarion. He couldn't see Mary through the front window, and stepped inside.


"Up Billy's room." She answered.

He made his way through the shop and turned at the cozy kitchen, where a flight of stairs were. He eyed the spare room off the kitchen and dropped his bag on the floor inside the door.

Mary was making Billy's bed and turned as her father-in-law entered.

"I'm so glad you came. I'll feel better when Billy is safe with you and Ellie." She noted of her Mother-in-law.

"What happened Mary?" He asked, and frowned at the heavy sigh and forlorn face his son's wife wore.

"A nightmare...We might as well meet with the others."

"How's Billy?"

"Fine...just a slight headache. J.D. has him in the sheriff's office. He's awfully depressed. He didn't say a word all morning."

"He's upset about Vin?" The Judge asked and saw Mary's head dip, hitting her chest. "That bad?"

"He's was awful...I've done something so grievous and unforgivable...I don't think I could face him if he did return."

"That's a little harsh."

"You weren't didn't see what I did...the town did to him." She rasped, eyes fixed on the memory. "The name calling and insults...were bad enough. Rocks and bottles...he had to escape in the church."

"I don't know Vin that well," The Judge advised, following Mary downstairs. "But the few conversations I've had with him and what I know of him persona leads me to believe you're wrong. He seems to be a man of deep feeling. I'm sure, given the circumstances, he'll see things different after some reflection"

"Spoken like a barrister..." She shook her head, and took his hand, "Thank You..."

+ + + + + + +

Josiah finished his morning meditation, having spent a great deal of time praying for Vin Tanner. He knew how sensitive Vin was and how deep his hurt ran. The crack in his internal armor that started with the incident at Ella's, widened considerably at the hands of the brutal attack and cracked open with the actions of the last couple days. But that same place inside the insightful Texan that was lacerated also housed an internal strength that was rare. It had kept the young man alive through a rough life and governed the integrity that Josiah admired so much. With a sigh, he thought of the metamorphosis he'd seen the tracker undergo since hanging his hat in Four Corners. The early weeks, he'd kept his distance, except around Chris Larabee. Then as time and life drew him into the fold, he flourished. His humor began to show up all over town and not one of them had been spared a Tanner prank. Nor could any of them stay angry, not at those wide blue 'who-me' innocent eyes. The smirk and hidden smile under the slouch hat had become as familiar as the soft 'Hey y'all' when he entered the saloon. He'd also come to admire those emotional eyes, which in a flash could turn deadly, guiding a bullet as only the expert sharpshooter could.

He opened the large wooden trunk and began to place Vin's things inside, keeping them safe until his return. He stared at the small amount of room the items took up. A whole man's life contained in a few short feet. He closed the trunk and locked it and read the note again. Vin's journey's was to heal his heart and find his lost soul. He needed to seek forgiveness in himself. Josiah read between the lines and felt the deep-seeded pain. But he also saw hope, and could almost hear the soft drawl, and see the head dip slightly. He had faith Vin would find himself again and hoped that the journey wouldn't be too painful for the younger man to bear.

"Lord, make his cross a light one..." He asked, shutting the door to the church and heading to the meeting with the Judge.

"Hey Billy...Your Grandpa's here." J.D. noted, watching the Judge cross the street. He turned from the doorway of the Sheriff's office and saw Buck Wilmington shake his head. The blond boy was perched on Buck's lap, drawing pictures. Usually, they couldn't shut the animated boy up, but today they couldn't buy a word out of him.

"Come on, Pard...I bet your Grandpa can't wait to see you." Buck urged, standing and placing a hand on the boy's shoulder. He exchanged a shrug with J.D., as they left for the meeting.

Far north of Four Corners

Most of the occupants of the sleepy town were in bed. He lifted his weary head and inhaled deeply. He filled his lungs with the sweet breath of the nearby snowcapped mountains Vin carefully eased off Diablo, praying that his leg would hold out. He steadied himself against the saddle, resting his throbbing head. He had no idea how far he'd come, but he'd ridden all night, before collapsing near dawn. He'd slept by the river for hours, the physical and emotional trauma having taken a severe toll. Resuming his trek north, heeding a call from another time, he'd pushed himself hard. The endless journey in the blanket of the dark time he was escaping from, was nearly done. He'd been pursued by villainous dialogue from town and plagued by Nathan's screams...he ridden hard and fast, as if to outrun the swift arms of the mental anguish.

"Mister? Hey Mister?"

"Huh?" Vin blinked and raised his aching head. A teenage boy eyed him curiously.

"You gettin' a room?"

"Uh...yeah...I reckon..." Vin yawned, rubbing his eyes.

"I'll take your horse. My Pa runs the hotel. I'm Robbie...My Pa's inside."

"Thanks, Robbie." Vin nodded and pulled his saddlebags and bedroll off. He slung them over his shoulder and entered the whitewashed, stucco building with terracotta tiles on the roof.

It was a small inn, but clean and well kept. Vin felt a cozy atmosphere and allowed himself to relax. He saw a middle-aged man with thinning red hair behind the counter. The man looked up and nodded, opening a large book. Vin leaned heavily on the counter and heard a soft voice. A gentle hand caused him to jerk.

"Good Evening." the soft voice called, "What's your pleasure?

"Excuse me?" Vin said low and backed up as a pretty brunette stood in front on him. "Uh...I'm not...uh...I only want a room, Ma'am." He took off his hat and felt himself flush. The man behind the counter echoed her soft laughter. She leaned in and patted his hand.

"Honey, that's the nicest compliment I've had in...well, quite awhile. I'm Rosa Douglas. This is my husband, Ben. I think you already met Robbie, our son."

"Oh," Vin said then frowned and his voice dropped. "Oh...Oh..." even lower, his head followed. "I'm sorry...I didn't mean, hell..." He muttered, getting tongue-tied.

"No offense taken," She eyed him carefully and saw the crude bandage on his head. "Did you have an accident?"

"Yeah...been ridin' hard fer quite a spell." Vin rasped, rubbing his fatigued scored face.

"A bath, a shave, some grub and a bed?" Ben Douglas guessed and saw the matted head nod.

"Yeah..." "Think I'll eat first, if that's okay. I get to soakin' in a hot tub and I'm likely to conk out."

"This way, Mr..."

"Tanner, Vin Tanner." He nodded, carefully printing his name on the register and taking a key from the patron.

Vin found a table in the corner of the deserted dining area. He chose a table tucked away in the corner of the room, near a woodstove. He shucked his coat off and leaned back, resting his eyes. He didn't know how long he'd been dozing, when he felt a small hand on his forehead.

"You have a fever..."

"I'm alright..." Vin replied tiredly, eyeing the steaming plate. His head rose as the tantalizing aroma of a thick steak and fried potatoes wafted by. "...but need to worry on me. Hey, sure looks good."

"I don't know..." She fretted, her mother's eye spotting the sluggish eyes that matched the flushed face.

Vin drained the water and poured another one. He sure was thirsty. He buttered a piece of hot, crusty bread. "Just need some food and rest is all..." He nodded, taking a bite of the sourdough bread. He made quick work of the platter. Once his empty stomach was rewarded, he headed to his room and dumped his belongings on the bed. He stood at the window, and envisioned the vista at the mountains to the north. Like a gifted lover, she seemed to reach out and lure him closer. He ached for the serenity she offered and sat on the bed, recalling the frosty peaks. He decided the bath could wait, he barely had the energy to take his boots off. The soft bed and thick quilt were calling him. He was asleep before his head hit the pillow.

Part 17

The rest were waiting at a large round table when Billy, J.D. and Buck arrived. The Judge's usually stoic face softened at the sight of his only grandchild. He held his arms out for his usual hug, and the boy reluctantly went to him.

"How's your head?" He inquired, as Billy stood next to him.

"Don't hurt too much." He replied.

"You take it easy, just the same." Nathan warned and saw Mary nodding. "You been out all morning, it's time for you to get some rest."

"Did you find out anything?" Josiah asked, spotting the notes the Judge was taking out of his valise.

"Shouldn't we wait for Chris?" He replied.

"He let out after dawn..." Buck answered, moving aside as Inez placed a large platter of food on the table. He grabbed the one on the end and nodded in thanks as she took his empty beer mug to fill. "I got out there about...oh...eight o'clock this morning. He was gone already."

"...and Vin?" The Judge inquired.

"It looked like Vin might have stayed there for awhile. There was a note on the mantle..." Buck paused, "I don't know when Chris will be back."

"What about Mr. Cavendish?" Ezra inquired. "Where you able to ascertain his connection to that Viperess?"

"Elliott Cavendish was from a wealthy family back east. He was thrown out of several colleges, after causing troubling disturbances. His father got fed up with him and threw him out. He disappeared and was feared dead, until years later..."

"When he resurfaced as the Phantom." Buck added, swallowing his overpacked tortilla.

"Yes, and he flourished in that role, for many years." The Judge added, "I am expecting more information later. The U.S. Marshall's office is investigating his background in Red Fork and I've wired for a couple of Pinkerton agents to track down Ella Gaines."

"What's the connection?" J.D. asked, piling some Spanish rice and chicken on his plate. "Were they partners?"

The Judge pursed his lips and rested them on his folded fingers. "The clerk noted on the wire that Ella was a frequent guest in his room at the Hotel."

"Her lover?" Buck guessed and saw the Judge shrug.

"Perhaps...he was the prior owner of the Culpepper Mining Company." The older man imparted and saw the heads around him shaking. "He purchased it from Randolph Culpepper about five years ago."

"Well that sure answers some questions..." Nate scoffed.

"I'll have more information in a few days, when I get a full report. I..." He paused as he saw the faces around him pale and turn to the table a few feet away.

"Billy?" Mary asked, squatting down and eyeing the silver object that caused the sad noise.

"It's mine...Vin gave it to me." He defended standing and backing away.

"Whoa Pard." Buck eased, as Billy hit his leg. "Nobody's gonna take that from you." He eyed the harmonica, Vin's prized possession, that was in Billy's hand. "Where'd you get that?"

"I told you, Vin gave it to me." He returned, irritated.

"When?" J.D. asked. seeing the death grip of the silver mouth organ, clutched against the small boy's chest.

"Last night...he climbed in my window."

"Dammit!" Nathan pounded the table.

"Easy Nate..." Josiah warned, seeing how upset Billy was.

"How did Vin look, Honey?" Mary asked.

"He had a bandage on his head like mine." Billy recalled, furrowing his face. "He was walking funny and makin' this" Billy hissed, imiatating the sound. "He said for me to keep this for him, until he gets back."

"Did he say anything else?" The Judge prompted. "Where he was going?"

"He said to mind Ma and to keep this for him." He finished and nodded confidently, running his finger over the metal object. "We're still Pards...he even said so..."

"That's great, Honey," Mary hugged him and he pushed away, walking to stand by Nathan.

"How come you didn't fix his hole?" He demanded his blue eyes angry.

"Billy..." Mary admonished, not used to hearing such a tone in his voice.

"That's okay, Mary," Nate dismissed, "It's a fair question"

"It's right here..." Billy tapped his chest. "You should have known about the hole...he had his sad eyes on for a long time." He pressed. "Why didn't you fix it? Then he wouldn't have get healed."

"I'm sorry, Billy," Nate said seriously, placing a hand on each squared shoulder, "You know I would never hurt Vin, he's my friend. That hole in his heart hurtin'. Sometimes a man has to go away and find some peace. That's where Vin a place where he can heal. Sometimes a man needs to be alone to do think and rest and maybe pray." He paused, feeling Josiah's grip on his shoulder.

"Is it because of those bad men who hurt you and Vin?"

"That's part of it." Josiah answered, seeing his best friend's face blanch.

"But they hurted you and you didn't go away." Billy cocked his head and paused, seeing the sadness in the dark eyes. He thought for a moment and placed his hand over Nathan's heart. "You got a hole too? You got sad eyes..." He saw Nate nod slightly. "Maybe I could help...I could play a song for you...Vin's learnin' me..."

"God Help Us All..." Ezra noted dryly of the tracker's lack of musical ability. The comment brought a round of chuckling that broke up the tension. Nate stood and took the small hand and took a deep breath.

"Thank You Billy. That's just what I need." He motioned for Mary, indicating he'd walk them back to the Clarion.

"I'll tell you what." Buck said to Orrin Travis. They watched the Travis boy leave, his small hand tucked in Nathan's larger one. "That's some grandson you got there, Judge."

"Here, here..." Ezra agreed.

"Well, Gentlemen. I'll be back at the end of the week. I've given instructions for the U.S. Marshall and the Pinkerton's to wire Josiah. So you'll have the same information. But I want to go to Red Fork myself, to ask some questions and have a look look around."

"When do we leave?" Buck asked, and saw the grateful nod.

"Thanks, Buck. I want to get Mary settled in at home. I'll meet you and Ezra in Red Fork the day after tomorrow. Sharpen your claws, Standish, I'm depending on your..."

"...underhandedness?" J.D. guessed.

"...deceitful deck-dealing ability?" Josiah noted.

"...dispeller of large amount of gaseous hot air?" Buck stated, wiggling his eyebrows and elbowing the scowling gambler.

"Go Buck!" J.D. praised. "I didn't think you knew any words bigger than five letters," he squirmed, avoiding the large hand that attempted to cuff him.

"I'm touched..." Ezra dripped sarcastically. "Your commentary has rendered me speechless."

"Not likely...didn't see any pigs flying." Josiah said, tossing some peppers and cheese on his tortilla.

"Aw, Hell, Ace...just think of all the ripe women in Red Fork..." Buck grinned, laying a hand on the scarlet jacket, "All those unclaimed jewels just waiting for Buck to sweep them off their feet."

"Yes, well, that is what is to be expected when one is rendered unconscious." Ezra shot back, getting a chuckle and nod from J.D.

"If you don't get on my nerves too much, I'll toss the extra's your way." Buck noted, then leaned over, winking at the Conman. "I might even give you some tips, if I'm feeling generous."

"There, Mr. Sanchez, is where you'll see the swine sailing by...Gentlemen." Ezra nodded. "Judge, am I to expect a monetary reward for my perilous mission?"

"Spoken like a true windbag." Buck shook his head as the Judge grimaced at Ezra and left.

"I will assume that is a no." Ezra sighed. "Oh the pain..." He tapped his chest and eyed two salesmen who entered the Saloon. "Ah, Good Afternoon, my fair friends. Care for a game of chance?"

"Lord, that man a wonder..." Josiah shook his head, watching the master lure the unsuspecting flies into his web.

South of Colorado Territory, sundown

Vin drained the last of his medicinal tea and made a face. He'd slept most of the day and felt the effects of the fever when he woke. It wasn't so bad, just a headache and tiredness. But he'd gotten a hot bath and that helped his hip, now discolored as well as sore. After hobbling to the dining room and having a good dinner, he'd retreated to his room, with a pot of hot water and some honey. The willow bark tea was awful, but he couldn't afford to have the fever beat him. He grinned, thinking of the shocked look Nate would have been, seeing him willingly making and drinking the bitter brew.

He slipped under the thick quilt and snuggled down, seeking warmth. As the medicine worked and the tension left him, a myriad of images fought their way before him. His drowsy eyes fought hard, needing to study the snow-capped mountains in the distance. He felt them pulling him...and sighed contentedly. Then Mary's slap reappeared and he jerked...Nathan's torn up back...Billy's bloody head...and Chris's cold eyes. That last image was what caused him to shiver defeated, and he let his heavy eyes close.

After Dark, in the New Mexico Desert

Chris slid off his horse reluctantly and patted the fine steed's neck. He spent a good while tending to Caesar's needs and thought on his trek. After getting the fire going, he made a meager dinner. Plate in hand, he laid down on his bedroll, where he propped himself up on one elbow and ate the last of the beans. Despite the warmth the amber and orange flames basked him in, he never felt colder. He'd ridden out at dawn the day before, not even sure where to start. He knew Vin wasn't headed south, but that left north, east and west. He thought of some of the vista's Vin mentioned in the past, most in New Mexico Territory and some in Arizona and Nevada. For the last couple days, he'd ridden to some of the spots close by. Friendless no-name towns and picturesque canyons proved futile. He'd ridden hard and long and now even his bones ached. He tossed the plate aside and took a long swig of whiskey. He lay down and threw his arm over his eyes, as if to ward them away. But still they haunted him, lurking like demons with well-honed pitchforks. Mocking, accusing, glaring, feuding, anguished, agonizing and finally defeated.

"Where are you Cowboy?" He whispered as the blue eyes invaded his mind again, penetrating like a pair of hot coals. Sleep eluded him for a long time; his only company was the distant call of a coyote. Finally, exhaustion won out, and he surrendered. But the limbs shifted restlessly and the green eyes darted elusively, behind the closed lids.


Comments to: