Lone Wolf Series

 Too Late

By Yolande

Once again...Thanks to my beta, Mitzi!


Vin Tanner scrubbed roughly at his face.  He rested his cheek against the cool windowpane and stared sombrely down at the street below.  The day had started with so much promise and yet it ended with such a tragedy.  His eyes followed the passage of the undertaker leading the procession, carrying the dead woman away.  Tanner choked back a pained sigh, and continued to stare out the window.  He could still hear the child’s cries ringing in his ears, even though, in reality, they were fading with each step the boy walked from his life.  He placed his hand on the glass and cursed harshly, banging his forehead in frustration against the window frame. 

“Ain’t nothin’ more you coulda done,” Jackson’s sympathetic tone stirred at his conscience. 

Vin knew he didn’t have a monopoly on the emotions that bombarded him at present, but he felt betrayed, even cheated somehow.  Of course, that was nothing compared to what the ten-year-old boy who trailed behind the undertaker was feeling.  Vin grunted, continuing to watch the group as it slowly past along the street.  Mary’s arm wrapped supportively about the slender boy’s shoulder, and she bent to his height whispering in his ear.  Tanner felt an intruder watching the intimate scene, but his eyes refused to stray and he wanted to see the boy to safety. 

He closed his eyes, and immediately the image of Jeremy’s deep brown eyes gazing trustingly up at him came to mind. Vin snapped them open quickly; a gasp fell from his lips as he fully expected the child to be in the room accusing him with his sorrowful gaze.  His shoulders shook as a tremor passed through his body.  The boy had handed over the reins, literally, and believed that Vin would be able to save his mother.  The tracker looked down at his hands and studied them for a minute.  He brought them to his nose and wrinkled it.  The acrid smell remained on his palms even though he’d scrubbed them until they were raw.  

Nathan reached out and rested his hand on Vin’s shoulder.  He was surprised to feel the tracker tense under his touch.  “Vin, she would have died, no matter what you’d done.  You got to believe me,” he implored. 

Vin didn’t face the healer, but could see the concerned expression mirrored in the window’s reflection.  “Told Jeremy I’d help ‘em,” he replied bitterly.  He shuddered once more.  The boy’s mother had pleaded with him, not with words, but in her expression.  She had held his hand and squeezed it with diminishing strength. She didn’t want to die, not today.  “Promised her, she’d be fine,” he whispered hoarsely. 

The procession entered the undertakers and disappeared from Vin’s view.  He waited a beat and four men piled back out through the door.  They stood talking for a moment then separated, heading in various directions.  After carrying the basket for Silas, they were no longer required.  Two of the four went directly to the saloon; another followed slowly behind, but continued down the street and passed out of sight.  The fourth gathered up the reins of his horse and spurred the mare into motion, taking its rider out of town.  Vin wondered if he had been elected to find Jeremy’s father.  Not a pleasant job, but someone needed to do it.  Mary and Jeremy remained inside with Silas.  

Nathan nodded; he understood how Vin was feeling.  He’d been in that situation so many times, and it never got any easier.  “It was a terrible accident, Vin.  And I can’t even say for sure if I had been there when it happened, that I could have saved her.”  The young mother had somehow managed to get tangled in barbed wire and her hand had been severed at the wrist.  The amount of blood loss from that alone had been massive. Her arm and chest were strung tightly with the wire and it cut deeply through her dress and skin down to the bone.  

When the wagon had pulled up in front of the clinic, Nathan had been horrified.  There was so much blood that Vin and Jeremy were both covered in it.  It took the healer a few moments to calm down to discover that they were uninjured.  His relief was short lived as he got a closer look at Rebecca Whitlow.  Jeremy was seated in the back of the wagon and holding tightly onto his mother.  The blanket covered them both and the child rocked his parent lightly.  It chilled Nathan to the core the terrified mantra Jeremy repeated over and over.  He was sorry, so very sorry.  They had to pry the hysterical boy off Rebecca to move her to the clinic.  She was semi-conscious and already her lips had turned blue as they deposited her on the bed. 

Jackson glanced behind him to the chaos of the room.  So much had happened, and in such a short space of time.  The bed linen was soaked with Mrs Whitlow’s blood.  There were spattered pools from the door to the bed, and probably, if he looked, he’d find more on his porch and stairs. They had needed wire cutters to disentangle the young woman, but with every piece that was removed, another one needed to be tackled.  There were bits of bloody wire everywhere on the floor.   

Vin sighed once more; his face a grim line.  He stood motionless, only his eyes blinked; and only then because of the moisture that was persistently building at the corners.  His chest heaved, aching with dread, his direction altered following the wagon they’d arrived in, as it moved across his sights.  Josiah led the dilapidated wagon inside the livery.  

Tanner had been out doing patrol.  He had almost completed his route and was heading back to town when he was almost run down by the frantically swerving vehicle.   Jeremy was driving the rickety wagon while his mother lay dying in the back.  His face was red and swollen from crying so much and his entire body trembled.  And it was sheer luck that the young boy managed to avoid running the wagon off the road.  How he managed to rig up the wagon and horse and load his mother into the tray was beyond Vin’s comprehension.  But it was amazing what strength’s a person could summon in dire circumstances. 

The tracker jumped in the back, pulled back the blanket and gasped audibly.  His eyes widened when he saw the detached hand, and he automatically sent a questioning gaze at the hovering boy.  Jeremy ducked his head, and started crying again in earnest.  The stump was wrapped crudely, obviously Jeremy had applied the bandage, but it had not stemmed the flow.  Vin unbuckled his belt and tightened it around her arm; he hoped that it would prove effective.  Then he spent a few minutes modifying the bandage.  He saw the fear in Rebecca’s eyes and smiled reassuringly.   His gut twisted with compassion and he offered a quick hug to the lost child before taking up the driver’s position.  

Vin wrinkled his nose, it bothered him that he could smell, and feel, Rebecca’s lifeblood on his clothes.  He glanced down, startled to find his jacket had patches on it, and under that, his shirt was similarly stained.  He continued his distracted perusal and discovered the knees of his pants and around the hems were also coated.  The bile rose to his throat and he choked it back down with difficulty. 

“Why don’t you go and get changed…” Nathan suggested; he’d seen the horrified look the tracker gave his clothing. 

Tanner glanced up at Nathan and frowned at the older man.  He turned back to the window in time to see Mary leading Jeremy toward the Clarion.  She would protect the child until his father came to get him. 

Jackson gathered up the linen from the bed and tossed it near the door.  He’d have it burned; getting bloodstains out was tough.  He’d have to scrub the floor and it would take some time to put the room back in order.  He paused a moment and sighed, Jackson was confused.  He needed to understand the chain of events that preceded the young mother’s death, but he was reluctant to force Vin.  “Do you want to talk about it?”

The tracker sucked in a ragged breath, his blue eyes glazing over.  “I found ‘em like that,” he croaked, “already coming hell for leather into town.” 

Jackson nodded. He kept his questions buried and waited to hear what else Vin would offer. 

“The kid kept muttering that it was all his fault and that he was sorry.  Mrs Whitlow,” Vin inwardly winced,  “she didn’t say nothing.”  Tanner looked stricken as he turned to face Nathan, realising for the first time that his part in the morbid play had not yet finished.   “Reckon I’ll need to talk to the kid’s father.” 

“I can do that.” 

“Nope.  It’s gotta be me.  You weren’t there, Nathan.” 

“Well, neither were you,” he reminded.  “You don’t have to do this.” 

“Somebody’s got ta.  Can’t expect the boy to explain.  He’s only a kid, and he’s already in a state.”  Vin bent forward, rubbing at his gut.  The lump that tightened inside was twisting and turning.  “Can’t leave somethin’ like that to a child.” 

Jackson squeezed the younger man’s shoulder.  “I can come with you.” 

 A pause then Vin finally accepted.  “Thanks…” 

Tanner stared out the window, waiting for Rebecca’s husband.  He vaguely heard Nathan puttering around the clinic, the timid knock on the door and then the hushed voices.  He didn’t turn to find out who was there, and the healer stepped onto the porch to finish his conversation.  Vin didn’t know how long he’d stood at the window, but he was determined to stay.  He could see the road as it disappeared out of town; and ultimately he would know when Russel Whitlow arrived.  For that reason alone he was transfixed to the spot.  The door opened and closed again, letting Nathan back inside. 

Nathan poured whiskey in a mug and held it under Vin’s nose.  “Reckon you could do with a drink.” 

Tanner absently sipped from the cup.  His throat tightened around the strong brew.  It hit his empty stomach with a vengeance and threatened to come straight back up.  Vin moaned, doubling at the middle and a fine sweat broke out on his face. 

“Vin.  Damn!  Guess I shouldna given ya that,” he added remorsefully, rubbing circles on the tracker’s back. 

“It’s okay,” Vin muttered, not arguing when the healer pushed him into a chair and threw a blanket over his shoulders. 

“You can still keep watch…but you need to warm up some.”  Jackson shook his head, concerned for the tracker.  He was probably in shock.  Nathan stood behind Vin a moment and wondered how Rebecca had managed to be so wound up in the wire.  She certainly was a sight.  He’d hoped Mary was easing Jeremy’s guilt.  He needed mothering at the moment and Mrs Travis was the best suited. 

Nathan opened the door a fraction; he heard the light tread of footsteps on his landing.  “Thanks…” he muttered, taking the bundle from JD’s grasp.  He shook his head at Dunne’s query and motioned the young gunslinger to leave.  “I got everythin’ under control.  Thanks, JD.” 

Vin shook his head to clear his mind.  He glanced down at the blanket and wondered where it had come from. 

“Got you a clean shirt, Vin,” Nathan prompted; flipping off the blanket he tugged the stained jacket from his shoulders.  

Tanner complied and was easily divested of his soiled shirt and quickly replaced it with another.  

Jackson wrapped the blanket around his shoulder once more.  Nathan wondered if he could slip something into a drink so Vin would sleep.  He was probably lucky to have gotten the Texan to drink the whiskey earlier.  “You want somethin’ to drink?” 

Vin shook his head and hugged the thin blanket tighter around his shoulders.  

Nathan returned to the task of collecting bloodied instruments.  They made a harsh clattering when they were dropped into the metal basin and Nathan was aware that Vin jumped each time he added another.  He tried to place them lightly in the container, but the metal tongs still clipped the edge of the basin causing the tracker to startle.  Once the healer was satisfied he’d picked them all up, he poured some carbolic in with them so the instruments could soak some before he began the process of physically scrubbing them. 

He heard a soft gasp from the tracker and turned to find Vin standing at the window and the blanket pooled on the floor. 

“I’ll be goin’ now.” 

The former slave followed Vin’s steady gaze.  He thinned his lips, and closed his eyes with remorse.  Rebecca’s husband rode like a mad man, dismounting his horse before it had even completely come to a stop, and raced inside Silas’ building.  Nathan searched behind the distraught husband looking for Buck, and with a relieved sigh he watched as Wilmington brought his horse along side Whitlow’s mount.  The dust was still swirling in clouds, yet to resettle after Whitlow’s sturdy beast’s hooves had ploughed up the road.  “He’ll need some time, Vin.” 

“Yeah,” Tanner agreed readily. 

Jackson remained standing at Vin’s elbow, knowing that Jeremy’s father would leave the undertakers sometime soon.  They stood in the same position, unchanged, for an hour.  

The slumped shoulders of Russel Whitlow and his staggering walk from the undertakers to the Clarion told both men of his total devastation.  He crumpled to his knees and thumped his balled fists on the ground and sobbed.  Vin lowered his eyes to the floor and sank heavily down on the chair.  He couldn’t watch as the widower grieved; it was entirely too personal.  He respected the man’s privacy and held his head in his hands.  When he next looked up, the door of the newspaper office was just closing.  “Reckon I should go over there?” Vin asked. 

Jackson squeezed his arm.  “Reckon if you can manage it, you best leave it a few days.  Let ‘em get used to the idea that she’s gone,” he advised. 

Vin nodded, realising he had nothing but sympathy to offer the farmer.  Nothing that could explain her death, only how she was when he first saw her.  Jeremy, he realised was the only person that could give the details about the accident.  There was nothing Vin could say that would bring her back or ease the turmoil that her death had caused.  “Reckon I might leave now.”  He rose and walked slowly to the door.  “Thanks, Nathan.” 

“Don’t reckon I did anything, but you’re welcome just the same,” a tight smile tugged at his lips. 

Vin stood at the bottom of the clinic stairs in the fading light.  The night fires were starting to light a path down the street.  The tracker halted his steps as the farmer and his son exited the Clarion.  Russel Whitlow’s arm was wrapped tightly around Jeremy’s shoulders, but the farmer’s own shoulder’s shook violently as though he was struggling with his emotions.   They made their way to the hotel, but paused mid-stride, coming to an abrupt stop.  Jeremy tucked his arms securely around his father’s middle and looked up to him with confusion. Whitlow bowed his head slightly, looking directly at Vin, or so he thought.  Their eyes met across the muted road and he nodded his head in acknowledgment of the new widower’s sorrow.  He stood still in the shadows long after they had disappeared inside the hotel. 

It had been a long day, and one that was going to plague him for some time to come.  

The End

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Lone Wolf Series