Disclaimer: The Magnificent Seven is owned by CBS and The Mirisch Co. This is a work of fan fiction and is not intended to infringe on any copyright or to make a profit.

Warnings: Language, violence.

Not suitable for sensitive readers.

Synopsis: Vin, by Judge Travis’ orders is searching for tracks that would lead him to the arsonists, plaguing the territory. This puts him directly in harm’s way, and places him and those he holds most dear at mortal risk.

Thanks: To my beta and precious.. Guardian Angel: thanks a lot for everything, girl! Without you this story would never be posted.

One more thing, I wrote this story listening to a haunting composition by Manuel De Falla (1876 – 1946): Ritual Fire Dance –

Dedication: to Jackie O. for her birthday. Here ‘s a Vinjury just for you, girl!

Very special thanks to Rhiannon.

Feedback: yes, please!


Part I
The peace of the summer twilight had begun to settle as Vin rode up and crested the narrow canyon. After a careful search, he located a route to the bottom and once there, decided to made camp by a small creek. Sliding off of Peso's back, he unsaddled the gelding and let him wander to nibble at the green grass.

Vin lit a fire and fixed himself the first hot meal he'd had in days. Sitting down with a cup of coffee and a plate of beans, he ate slowly, chasing the food down with frequent gulps of the strong brew. He felt bone weary and was ready for his bedroll. By Travis's orders he'd been out searching for tracks or clues that would lead him to the arsonists that were plaguing the outskirts of Four Corners. He'd been out for a week now, patrolling the territory up and down, drifting from saloon to saloon, hotel to hotel and had finally caught a break. In the Saloon at Eagle Bend, he'd heard that Guy Royal, a notoriously big rancher, was going broke, having invested his money recklessly and carelessly. The only way Royal could come out of this mess with some dignity was to sell his ranch and all his land to the railroad company. The fancy and expensively dressed people at the Saloon were talking freely, none of them bothering about the unkempt young man leaning on the far corner of the bar. For once, Vin's scruffy appearance had been a benefit to him, since no one had paid him any mind not knowing how interested he was in their conversations. The Texan had spent the rest of the week around Royal's ranch, collecting evidence of his findings and now was heading back to Four Corners to give Travis a full report. Vin drained his cup and smiled as his eyes took in the silent landscape.

The voice of the stream was nothing but a soft whisper. Beyond it was a gentle slope of earth covered with fine grass spangled with tiny flowers. Below the canyon was shut in. There was no view. It ended in chaos of rocks and far beyond raised far hills and peaks. Vin climbed to a viewpoint to look out over the countryside. Later, after deciding there were only the wild four-legged creatures out and about, the tracker returned to his little camp, rolled out his blanket, and was asleep almost immediately.

+ + + + + + +

Vin woke suddenly in the soft moonlight. He'd heard no sound but a premonition of danger swept over him. The moon was bright, and it took several moments before his sight adjusted, and a second or two longer before he could be sure of what he was seeing . . . a shadow moving cautiously among the shrubs.

His heart beat faster as his senses went on alert. Remaining on his side, the young man knew instinctively that something or someone was coming up behind him.

His mind raced as he thought about what to do; instinct and fighting spirit telling him to move quickly, but common sense and experience favoring a slow and cautious meeting with whatever it was that he felt threatened by. Instinct won over cautious as the sharpshooter whirled around to face the intruder that was coming at him. A loud noise burst in his ears and he felt a stunning blow on the right side of his back and then a searing pain. Twisting frantically on the ground, trying to get up, to do something, Vin felt his body go limp and everything went black.

Above, colts in their hands, standing over Tanner's prone, motionless body, two men with guns drawn, rejoiced in catching their man. "Got him! Go tell Mr. Royal the half breed has been taken care of," the taller of the two men said. "I'll take care of the body."

"You gonna bury him? His corpse is worth five hundred bucks, you know.”

“Yeah, but Royal told me he'd pay us triple the bounty to kill him, get rid of the body and not leave any tracks behind."

The shorter man nodded, hurried to his horse, mounted and rode away to find Royal.

His companion approached Vin and leaning over the man, cocked his gun in order to fire again, but in an instant, the tracker, with a thrust of his elbow, struck the man's wrist hard.

The muzzle was knocked to the side and the bullet, instead of hitting Tanner, went harmlessly into the ground. Vin grabbed a handful of dirt and flung it in the eyes of his antagonist, blinding him. Screaming in pain, hands going to his eyes, the man lost his grip on the colt, dropping it. Vin grabbed it and fired, the bullet hitting the man in the face and he fell to the ground, dead.

Vin sat and looked at the other man's features.

'Never laid eyes on him b'fore, he thought absently, 'an' the bastard shoot me in th' back.'

He groaned and looked down at his side. A patch of blood stained the blue shirt, spreading down beneath his belt. A frown passed over his face as his fingers probed the hole in his body.

The bullet had struck him across the back right side, missed his spine, glanced upward across his back and came out near his ribcage.

‘'Went clean through. No harm done', he thought, knowing that it was going to hurt like hell anyway.

"Guessin' it's up ta me to fix myself up and git outta here", he said out loud with a big sigh.

Even though it was slow and awkward working with only his right hand, he managed to tear some strips from his shirt. Using the water from his canteen, he soaked the material then put them in the wound holes to stop the bleeding. He fashioned himself a rough bandage and dressed the wound. When he was finished, he gave a little nod, thinking he'd done a pretty good job of taking care of himself. Shivering, he reached for his hide coat and put it on.

Staying down for several minutes until his head cleared, he finally got up and made his way into the bushes and found the dead man's horse‘s prints on the hard crusted mud near the stream.

Squatting down and carefully examining the ground, he studied the hoof prints for several minutes then looked up. The tracks led out of the canyon.

With a slight nod, the tracker knew what he had to do.

Working slow and easy, he got his horse saddled and then eased himself up and onto Peso, wincing at the stabbing pain in his side. Leaning down from the saddle, he studied the tracks once more and then headed off, following them until he came upon a cabin and the remains of a half-ruined old mine. Light flickered from the windows of the lone shack, Guy Royal's buggy standing out in front.

Vin crept forward and found concealment underneath the overhang of the porch. He remained crouched there for a moment, his shoulders against the log wall.

Slowly he made his way over to the window and listened in. There were three men talking quietly and he could only hear the mutter of their voices. Then he saw some shadows move and heard the sound of boots and spurs. They were right on the other side of the wall . . . so close. He recognized the voices when they spoke; Guy Royal and Top Hat Bob Spikes. Thankfully, they never looked out the window.

"The Olson and Porter farms are gone and now it's time to finish with Nettie Well's place," Guy Royal said.

"What about that old woman?" Spikes asked. "I've seen her shoot with that Spencer carbine of hers. She’s good with it."

"Do what you have to with her," Royal told him. "I've put up a lot of money for your freedom, Marshal, and now I want you to finish what you've started. And I want it done tonight."

Vin took a deep breath. He felt his anger grow, hearing it was Nettie’s place they were going to burn out next.

“We’ll be there by midnight. What time you got?”

“Ten past nine.” Royal told the Marshal

“Then say one-thirty. We'll get the job finished and meet you back at the ranch by daybreak. You know, that damn tracker has been following us," Top Hat added.

"He's dead," Royal said, cutting the man off. "Two of my men ambushed him at Ridge Pass tonight."

Royal's right hand man Curly gave a short laugh. "An' Chris Larabee will already be dressed for the occasion."

Vin scarcely noticed they were talking about him. All he could think of was Nettie and Casey and the danger they were in. He knew how Royal was. The man wasn't above murdering women; whatever it took to get what he wanted.

Vin moved backwards, one shoulder against the wall, step after step until he was at the lower edge of the shack. There he felt safe to stand and started walking away, making a wide circle until he came to his horse. Mounting his horse, he rode out over the crest and down, pushing Peso hard.

Nettle’s ranch was sharply to the right, eight or nine miles farther along the trail. Straight across at the end of the valley laid Chris’ shack.

To go there first would take him only a mile or so out of his way and he needed help.

Peso wasn’t fresh but he could take the long trek.

After a while, he came in sight of Chris’ place. From the hill he could see in the moonlight, the corral and the shack below.

He rode on and pulled up just in front of the dark house.

“Chris! It’s me, Vin!” he shouted.

The gunslinger came to the door with only his pants on, holding a newly lit lantern.

Looking at his friend he could see Vin was dirty, hurt and distraught.

"You're bleedin'," he said as his eyes went to the bloodstains on the tracker's shirt. "What happened pard?"

"Met a couple of fellas up on th' ridge. Never seen 'em b'fore, but one of 'em shot me in th' back. Went clean through, though, looks worse than it is," he added, seeing the concern in Larabee's eyes.

“Where are they?" Chris wanted to know.

"The one that got me, I fixed 'm good. He's dead. The other ran off . . . figure he's one of Royal's men."

"Let's get you inside and fix you up," Chris said, making a move to help Vin dismount.

"S'kay Chris, it's jist a scratch. An’ sides, time’s a wastin'. Need yer help. Royal's involved in all the fires and he's fixin' ta burn Nettie's place tonight."

Chris cursed under his breath. "Think you can toss my saddle on Pony?" After seeing his friend nod, he added, "I'll finish getting dressed then." Turning, he disappeared into the house.

Vin scarcely had time to saddle Chris’ horse and water Peso before the gunslinger was back.

Mounting and spurring their horses, they followed the forking ridges to the forest that overlooked the coulee two miles above Nettie's ranch. Once there, they left their mounts and clambered along the broken ground.

"There they are!" Chris whispered loudly, grabbing Vin by his shoulders and pulling him down and out of sight.

In the gray light of the early morning, they saw six men coming down the hill, easing their mounts warily.

Vin nodded at his friend and crawled among the rocks towards the outlaws. He stopped suddenly and slid his mare's leg from its holster. Taking aim, he fired a warning shot ahead of the lead horse. Chris cut lose a second later.

The outlaws scattered, three of them dismounting and hunkering down with their rifles behind some boulders. The others headed for Nettie's ranch. A bullet struck the rock by Tanner's cheek. He moved to a new position and fired until his mare's leg was empty.

Finally making his way back to Chris, he found him looking at a wound in his left leg.

"They got me," the gunslinger grumbled, tying his bandanna around the wound, "but I got one of them. Know who I think it was? Our old friend, Curly."

Vin nodded and drawled, "Can you handle things here?"

“I’ll handle them. What you got in mind?”

“I’m goin’ on ta Nettie’s.”

"Alright. Don't do nothing foolish, Vin."

"Never," the tracker said with a twinkle in his eyes and, with his Winchester across his thighs, he started to slide downhill, going from rock to rock. As he descended, the sound of distant gunfire came to him. It was from Nettie's place.

Before Vin was in sight of the ranch, a ruddy light appeared in the distance and he could smell smoke. Abandoning caution, the tracker sprang to his feet, sliding faster down the steep hill. From where he was now, he could see that the house was on fire, and hear the nearby sounds of gunfire. He kept going and half fell. From the warmth on his side, he knew that his wound had opened up and was bleeding again. The trip down the hillside had taken a lot out of him. Swaying slightly, he finally reached the black shadows alongside the barn. Upturned against Nettie's house was a half-burned wagon that had been loaded with hay, set afire and rolled down from the hill.

Vin didn't fear the building going up in flames, it would take awhile for the stout logs to burn, but he did worry about the smoke. He was fighting his own weakness of near collapse as he approached the porch. Flames lay in a circle now around the house and he struggled on to the front door.

The smoke was beginning to make him cough, so he covered his nose with his bandana, raised his booted foot, and with a kick, busted the door open. As soon as the door opened, rifle fire opened up on him from the hill. He turned to see a rider start down the slope, and promptly shot him out of the saddle. Looking back to the smoky entrance, he was just about to go through the doorway, when something struck him in the head from behind. The blow spun him around, dropping him to his knees.

He heard footsteps and figured it was Royal's men, coming to finish him off. A moment later, he felt something hard pressed into his ribs.

"We got you now, savage!" Marshal Top Hat Bob hissed, roughly pulling the tracker's bandana down.

Vin started to give a wry reply but found he was too weak to get any words out. Then everything began to spin wildly and he fell over as if being dropped by a hammer.

“Is he dead?” Top Hat asked.

"I wish he were. He killed my friend," one of the men growled. Leaning down beside Tanner and pulling up the bloody shirt, he said, "Got one in the side, he's bleeding a bit, is all."

“Riders coming!” cried out a man from the top of the hill.

“How many?”

"One man. Ridin' slow. Could be hurt."

"Must be Larabee," Top Hat Bob said. Walking over to the corpse of the man Vin had shot, he examined it critically. "Good. About the same build," he muttered, and then turned to his men. "Undress Tanner. Put his clothes on the corpse and hang it in that tree," he instructed sharply.

The men looked at him with questions on their faces.

“Damn, what are you waiting for? Do it!” he shouted.

When the outlaws finished their task, Top Hat smiled evilly. From his saddlebag, he took a flask and tossed the contents on the body until it was drenched.

"We are going to play a little trick on Larabee," he said in amusement. "Bring me a lantern! This is going to be a real warm welcome!" he laughed as he tossed the lantern against the swaying body.

The fire shifted and roared, catching the clothes and the body became a human torch.

“My only regret is not being here when Larabee finds his best friend burning up!" Top Hat said. Then pointing to Tanner, lying half naked in the dirt, he ordered, "Pick that breed up. We'll take him to the ranch . . . as a present for Mr. Royal.”

Tying the unconscious tracker over the back of a horse, the outlaws left quickly.

Chris cantered his horse towards the ruins of the house and flame- engulfed barn. He slid painfully from the saddle, looking for his friend. Then, a dreadful stench of burning leather and flesh filled his nostrils. His eyes widened in shock as he saw a body hanging from a tree and his heart slumped in his chest. Memories of another fire burst into his mind. He tried to move, but couldn't. It was if his whole body had been turned to stone. In the dirt lay his friend's battered hat. He lunged for it, breath coming in spasms; he kneaded the soft felt with his long fingers. “NO! Not like this! Not again! God, please!" he pleaded, his cry reverberating in his ears. He fell to his knees, hands over his eyes and with a final anguished spasm, collapsed and lay still.

+ + + + + + +

Vin was sitting on a wooden chair in a windowless room, a sort of little tool shed. His arms were tied together at the wrists and his legs at the ankles. His ribs, bruised and possibly broken from the beating he'd taken, made each breath a grunting, agonizing effort. His nostrils were thick with dried blood.

A meaty fist smashed into his face, his head snapped back and once more there were questions and evil laughs from the men surrounding him. Sharp blows coming either from fists or feet hit him all over his body. Winded and sick he blinked rapidly fighting to focus his vision and saw Royal entering the room.

The rancher surveyed the scene calmly, crossed the floor and asked, "Did he tell you anything?"

The man that was questioning the Texan shook his head.

"I've just started, but he's a stubborn cuss, Mr. Royal."

Royal stepped forward, getting in Vin's face. “Tanner, I want to know how much Travis discovered about my little business. You'd better spit it out. I'm not sayin' it's goin' save your hide, but it could spare you a lot of pain," he said with a sneer.

Vin licked his dried lips; his steel blue eyes leveled a look at the rancher. “I'll tell ya what, the Judge knows 'nuff already ta nail yer sorry hide ta the wall, ya murderer!" he snarled.

Royal stepped back and allowed one of his men another roundhouse, open – hand slam to Vin’s face. The tracker whimpered, stifling a cry, but managed to utter, "Larabee's gonna root you outta this country once and fer all."

Royal laughed harshly. "Slim chance, boy. Your friend won't come. By now he's in no shape to even be a threat. I guess you've noticed by now that your clothes are gone. We put them on a corpse, hung it in a tree and set fire to it, so Larabee witnessed your death. He took it kinda personally, you know, since his wife and boy burned in a fire. Heard they had to take him back ta town tied to his horse, guess he's lost his mind," and he laughed again.

Vin looked down at his body and noticed he had on only the remains of his long johns, which hung low on his hips. He doubled over, in spite of his bonds, as his face turned bone white.

“Well, well,” Royal blurted out, “I figured the likes of you were used roaming half naked, breed!”

The Texan drew himself erect. “Yer only a lily liver, afraid ta fight us, Royal,” he growled.

Walking slowly forward Royal slapped him violently across the mouth. Vin’s lips, already cracked, split open again, but the tracker sucked at the blood and glared defiantly at him, nostrils flaring. With a swift movement Royal grabbed Vin by his long hair, twisted it viciously and examined for long minutes the bloody face.

"See, a long mane and big, crazy eyes. Why, you remind me of a horse. A wild horse that needs taming. That's it! And I'm going to tame you for sure, Injun lover," Royal hissed at him and then, turning to his men, he ordered, "Stretch him out for a branding!"

Vin stiffened and a knot formed in his throat. He stared at Royal with a blank look, the look of a man who was beyond feeling any punishment and who had long ago stopped even wondering the reasoning behind it.

Royal's men untied him, took him outside to the barn and slammed him to the ground on his back. They secured rawhide straps to his wrists and ankles, leaving him spread-eagled. When the branding iron descended on his injured and bleeding side, the tracker could smell the hotness of it and see the burning edges. An incoercible quiver ran all through his tense body.

Vin writhed and twisted, but he was held too tight. Then came the pain; a blinding, sharp pain, igniting his belly as the sick smell of burnt flesh filled his nostrils. He wanted to scream, to blot out the agony shaking his body, but he wasn't going to cry out. Not a sound escaped through his lips.

Barely conscious now, Royal's men half dragged, half carried him out of the barn and to the edge of a hole dug in the center of the corral. His hands were jerked down and roughly tied with ropes behind his back, his feet bound also and he was forced upright into the narrow hole. Then the men grabbed their spades and shoveled dirt back into the hole. They did it efficiently, stamping down the dirt firmly with their feet all around, until the tracker was buried in the ground, only his tousled head, chin and strong neck showed above it.

Royal squatted in front of him. "You are going to die, Tanner," he stated with an evil laugh as he got right in the buried man's face.

Vin went wild with a quiet rage, slowly lifted his head and looked as though he was trying to speak. His mouth worked, a ghastly grin spread on his pale features and then he spat into Royal's face. "If I do, I'll show ya how it has ta be done," he rasped out in a surprisingly strong voice.

Royal wiped off the bloody spittle from his face with a handkerchief and leaned further into his prisoner. "You'll be askin' me ta put a bullet in you before dusk," he whispered confidently.

“It'll be a cold day in hell!" Vin fired back, shutting his eyes.

“Mart!” Royal shouted, turning his back to Vin, “Stay here!” he ordered and a man with a rifle took up his watch not far from the living grave.

+ + + + + + +

The sun was slowly rising in the sky and the tracker looked up at it. Tanner tried to shift his body a bit but couldn't, he was trapped in the ground, breathless. It was like a tomb. He felt the growing horror from the pressure and blinked as the sweat running from his forehead stung his eyes. Biting down on his lips firmly, Vin managed to dominate the trembles that racked his body. Being held down was one of his worst nightmares. He had to summon all the courage left in himself to control his racing heart.

At least he wasn’t in the dark. The sun was shining on his head and the wind was blowing through his hair.

I’m still alive, he thought with a faint smile, and not in a hurry ta meet my maker.

Vin’s tenacious, resourceful, stubborn mind wouldn't give up easily. He was fully aware that he couldn't last long in these conditions. But there was a way; a dangerous one, given that he was so weak, but it was the only option left to him. Firmly closing his eyes, the young man relaxed, trying to remember what he had learned from his Indian mother, the powerful shaman. Taking the deepest breath he was allowed, he started to sing in a hoarse voice and a very low tone. He called to the Spirits.

His singing lasted for hours and at twilight a kind of gentle torpor enveloped his senses. His sight was focused on the fading sun and he distinguished the contours of the vultures spiraling above him as a large eagle appeared. It circled around, its big wings shimmering gold in the twilight. Then it plunged with incredible speed in the middle of the vultures that flew away in confusion. Vin heard its cry of victory as it went up and up high, as only it could fly. Smiling, Tanner kept his eyes on the big raptor until it was nothing but a speck in the purple sky. The red light of the sun, circling slowly, darkened to a soft deep blue, the hue of a night sky without any stars. Into the velvet embrace of this comfortable darkness, his tired and aching body relaxed, surrendering with a strange sense of security to unconsciousness.

+ + + + + + +

Royal was having his dinner when a man rushed into the room.

"What's going on, Bill?" Guy asked, putting down his knife and fork.

"The prisoner, Mr. Royal. He's dead."

"What? What happened"?

"Well, you know, when Mort and I put him in the hole this morning, he didn't make much of a noise, no moaning or complaining or crying, but later when I came on duty, I saw his lips moving. When I approached him, I heard him singing softly to himself."

“What?" Royal looked in disbelief at his hired man. "So what's this got to do with him bein' dead?"

"I know, it's weird, but the heathen savage was singing, I swear it. He sang at intervals all day long, I guess, in a sort of Injun dialect. I couldn't make out a damn word. Then about an hour ago, he stopped. I went ta check on him and he weren't breathing. We dug him out and, hell, he was plumb dead."

Royal turned to the man, “Well, Bill, what about a drink to celebrate?” he asked, handing him a full glass. “Tomorrow we’ll take Tanner’s corpse to Tascosa, and collect the bounty on his head.” With a satisfied smile, he drained his glass and, leaning on his comfortable seat, murmured, "This is the end, Larabee."


A gentle touch on his shoulder woke him. Chris blinked twice to clear his blurry vision and his gaze centered on Nettie’s face.

“Nettie, I thought you were . . . ” he murmured.

"Hush, Mr. Larabee, you are hurt. Rest now," the old woman said softly.

"How . . . how'd you get out?" Chris wanted to know, forcing his eyes to stay open and his mind to concentrate.

"Well, when my late husband and I came here, this country was pretty rough, you know, and so to keep us safe from certain elements, he built a shelter under the house. We told no one about it. Casey and I owe our lives to that shelter he built," the spirited woman explained.

“Where I am?” Chris asked.

“At Nathan’s. We brought you back to town. You have been delirious for a whole day.”

Chris nodded and even managed a weak smile as Nathan peered at him. For a while he lay flat on the bed, something nagging away at the back of his mind, and then he remembered. “Vin! Noo! Noo!” he cried out. He tried to sit up but fell back and sank into the pillow with a groan.

Nettie took his hand and squeezed it gently. “Calm down, Mr. Larabee, there’s nothing you can do, he’s dead,” she said quietly and, only now looking at her, did Chris noticed her pallor and her eyes swollen with weeping.

The gunslinger turned his head away form Nettie but held on to her hand. He didn't cry. With his head laid back on the pillow, he looked up at the ceiling and lay deathly still, his mind reeling.

Gradually, Chris became aware of the sensation that was slowly groping it's way through his agitated mind. The realization of knowing he'd never see his friend again, hear that husky, soft drawl, or look into those expressive blue eyes, brought back the desperate feeling of nothingness and despair he'd experienced the day he had lost his family. He let the grief come now, let it burn and grow stronger, consuming him totally, and this time, hot tears rolled down his cheeks.

The burning fireplace in the room was throwing a little light over the wooden walls and ceiling. Wiping at the tears, Chris elbowed himself up, and watched as the riots of orange and red colors danced here and there. It seemed as though the room, for all it's size, was like a great clay oven. He could smell the smoke, the stench of burnt flesh and screamed, “Not like that, not the fire! Vin! You promised you wouldn’t leave me!”

Drawing himself up in the bed, Chris flinched when firm, but gentle hands pushed him back down.

“Please, Chris, don’t,” Nathan, urged, taking a firm hold of his trembling shoulders.

Chris' eyes widened. "Let me go! The house is on fire. Got to save them. Let me go!" he cried out, fighting weakly against the restraining hand. Finally, exhaustion took over and he fell back on the bed, totally spent.

"He's lost consciousness again," said Nathan, with a frown.

“Can you help him, Nathan?”

"Don't think so." I ain't no doctor and besides, this ain't a physical disease I can help him with. See, the balance of his mind has been disturbed because of what happened to Vin. That brought back all those painful memories of his past," Jackson said with a sigh.

The gunslinger lay motionless on the bed, his body racked from time to time by spasms. Nathan leaned forward, adjusting the blanket around his friend's trembling body, a worried look on his face.

"I wish Vin were here," Nettie whispered as tears started to flow from her eyes.

+ + + + + + +

The lightening woke Vin. Fragments of the warm blackness enveloped his mind disintegrating with each flash as a gentle rain caressed his battered body. The Texan slowly turned onto his back, looked up and saw a woman in a white doeskin fringed dress with open work sleeves, standing at his side. Her frail frame quivered like a leaf as she stretched out her thin arms towards him and raised them up over her head in a slow movement.

"I brought you back, back from death’s deep slumber, White Wolf. I didn't give you birth . . . my love is born not of the flesh but of my soul and it’s strongest and purest and in the name of this love, I asked Wakantanga to spare your life.”

Vin smiled. "Mother," he whispered.

She laid her hand upon his auburn locks, bent down and kissed his brow with tenderness.

“I am a healer, befriended by the Spirits and they gave me the power," she murmured. "You’ll live to have your vengeance."

At that, Vin felt his skin break out in a sweat and run down his body like spring rain. He lay motionless for a while, coming slowly out the dream that had consoled and drugged his pain. Finally, he came fully to his senses.

He gazed about him. It was almost morning. The mountains in the gray light were shrouded in a mist… a small wind was blowing. There was a freshness to everything that gladdened the heart. Slowly, Vin made out his surroundings. Royal's men had dragged him out of the hole and left him lying in the corral. He filled his lungs with the clear air and sighed in relief. He had fooled them. For the first time, a feeling of hope assailed him fiercely.

No one was around. C'mon Tanner, he ordered himself. Git movin', iffen ya don't right now . . . ya can rest forever. Git movin' before ya pass out. He slowly sat up, glad for the feeling of the increasing rain on his naked flesh, listening to the coming thunderstorm, with wild satisfaction as stiffly rose to his feet.

Getting out of the ranch was easy.

Just a short dash to a shadowed part of the fence, then crawling slowly into the sparsely wooded area. After an anxious time . . . a time where every rotten stick or leaf seemed to shout his passage, and every branch seemed to want to hold him back, he found what he was looking for. Underlying the roar of the wind, he heard another noise: the distinct sound of running water. The river! It took it’s origins from the mountains and ran westward towards Chris' ranch.

Vin looked around and at last he found a big log able to support his weight. With all the strength left in his wiry frame, he dragged it toward the stream. He was very weak and a couple of times he had to pause catching his breath, but at last he skidded down the bank. It had not rained hard for a long time so the rapids were not too fast. Pushing the log into the water he waded in and put his arm around it, floating downriver with it.

“Hell, it’s cold!“ Vin shivered but gamely kept swimming.

“Chris! I’m comin’, jist hold on! Hold on, pard!” He called as the current whirled the log away, drawing it to the center of the river.

+ + + + + + +

Chris stirred in his sleep. He heard a whispered, "Chris!"

The sound was distant. He frowned, yet the husky voice was in his own slumber, a haunting call inside his feverish dream.

“Chris! “That harsh whisper urged again.

Larabee tore himself from sleep and opened his eyes only a slit. He was in the clinic . . . alone. The well-known soft voice filled his ears. “Hey, Larabee!”

Chris suddenly froze; a shaft of moonlight illuminated the silhouette of a longhaired, naked young man standing in the middle of the room.

“Vin! That you? It can’t be, you are . . . you’re dead. They burned you . . . I saw it. You’re a ghost.”

Pale blue eyes held him. “Ain’t gone yet, but I need yer help, git to the river . . . ya hear me? The river.”

“Vin!” Larabee cried out again as his eyes popped wide open, and the shadow disappeared.

Nettie rushed in and went to his side.

Chris was desperately trying to sit up. There was a strange look in his eyes; the corners of his full mouth were quivering. Panting hard, he managed to haul himself up to his elbows.

"Got to get up. Vin's alive … waiting for me . . . he is in trouble… he needs me," Chris gasped, pushing himself off the side of the bed, perspiration running off his face.

The old woman looked at him with frightened eyes. “Nathan!” she cried out. “Nathan!”

Buck heard Nettie's cry, rushed into the room and hurried to his friend's side.

"Buck!" Chris cried out. "Help me up . . . gotta go!"

"Chris, you gotta stay put," Buck said gently, pushing the struggling man back onto the bed.

"No, Buck. You gotta help me. You don't understand. Vin's alive," Chris pleaded for his friend to listen.

“That’s true,” a voice said. Nathan was at the door, a strange look on his face. “That corpse they burned? That wasn't Vin."

"How do you know?" Buck asked as all three turned hopeful looks at the healer.

"Well, I had to check the body, just to be sure, and even though the flames burned the flesh, it hadn't reached the bones. Now, Vin always leans slightly to his right because that's the way he was born, his spine leans that way. But this body that was burned? Its spine don’t curve at all. It ain't Vin."

Chris closed his eyes and murmured, “I knew he was alive.”

"How'd you know, pard?" Buck asked softly.

“I had a dream.”