Part IV
Chris and Josiah rode side-by-side following Vin and keeping their distance. They came up onto a high plateau where they could see out over the plain. Vin was crossing the land a mile away.

“He’s heading straight to Royal’s pasture land, “Josiah said.

“He might have seen us, “Chris said, frowning.

The tracker had reined up and was standing in his stirrups, his long hair swirling in the hot wind, perfectly still; like a wolf motionless in ambush. Then with a sudden start, he turned his mount to the hills, urging Peso with his naked heels, putting him at a gallop.

“Hell! We better get going. He's slipping away, ” Chris said.

They swung over the plain and left the main trail, following the young man to a forking ridge. There in the wild jumble of rocks and bushes, they lost track of the Texan.

As they rode to a little creek Chris slowed his horse, opened his mouth, shut it tightly and breathed heavily through his nose, once more scooping the landscape.

“Can you make him out?" he asked Josiah

“No. He's disappeared.”

The gunslinger looked at the low sun, then to the mountains. His gaze wandered back to Josiah. “We'd better water the horses and get some rest,” he suggested.

They dismounted and staked the horses out in the dusty grass, stepping to the creek, washing their faces and drank of the water.

Josiah busied himself filling their canteens as Chris sat on the ground, laying back and putting his hat over his eyes. All of a sudden the soft sound of horse’s hooves startled him.

He sat up, put on his hat and saw Peso plodding along, rider less.

“Dammit!" he swore, rising abruptly to his feet.

A quiet laugh answered him. “Hey, Larabee, you’re huntin’ me, I reckon!” a well – known soft voice drawled.

Chris turned and saw Vin standing near the willows of the bank, gripping his bare shoulders in either hand. He looked like hell, but he was smiling - that boyish smile that always reminded Chris of how young Tanner really was.

“You shouldn’t appear like a ghost behind my back. Makes me nervous,” Larabee grumbled, trying to hide the relief he felt at the sight of his friend.

“Well, I had a helluva lot of fun, makin’ ya ride in circles,” Vin laughed as he sat cross legged on the ground at Chris's side, wiping the sweat from his forehead.

“A mite hot yonder. I could use a drink," he breathed.

Josiah approached and handed him his canteen. “Drink, brother Vin. You look as if you could do with it,” he said, an anxious look on his face.

The tracker gulped down a mouthful of water and coughed, holding his sore chest and stifling a groan. Chris saw the quickening of pain in his still too pale face and wrinkled his brow. “You should be in bed,” he stated.

“Hell, cowboy, yer more fussy than Nate. Once in God’s country I rode for three days with a bullet in the leg and as I remember, there weren’t and riverbeds around. Don’t fret ‘bout me I’ll survive,” Vin said then drank some more.

“I feel much better for that," he declared and taking the canteen by its straps swung it to Sanchez with a grateful gaze.

“All you need is to lie down, Vin,” Josiah assured him.

“Later, not now. That lousy bastard kidnapped Miz Nettie and took her to his ranch. As sure as the world, I'm fixin’ ta set her free.”

“You got a plan, Vin?” Chris asked.

Vin's white teeth bared in a mischievous half grin. "Got a plan but I need you two ta make it work. Ain’t no fool, I know I can’t face all of ‘em alone.”

Chris sighed and tossed his head. “Once I promised to watch your back, pard, I don’t aim ta back down now,” he said quietly.

Vin looked his friend straight in the eye. And in that sharp, green gaze he saw the same trust and knowing he had seen that first time in the dusty street of Four Corners.

A slow smile curved his lips as he turned to Josiah. “You with us, preacher? “ he asked softly.

“I made the same deal, Brother Vin," Sanchez answered him.

Vin’s smile widened. He looked up at the sky. “We’d better git goin’, we’re burnin’ daylight,” he said briskly. He stood, stepped back to Peso and swung onto his back, leading him across the stream and up to the creek’s bank. There he turned and asked, “Y’all comin’?” and without waiting for a reply touched the gelding with his heels, pushing him into a gallop towards the plain.

“Dammit!" Chris swore. “We ought to have that fool roped and hogtied as Nathan suggested.“

“You can’t stop the wind, Chris," Josiah said, with a sad smile.

They retrieved their horses and rode down the trail to Royal’s ranch. Riding back to the main trail, Vin led them up on a hill at the edge of the wood surrounding Royal’s pastureland. Vin stopped at the top of it and slid from his horse's back. He stood, listening intently.

“Somebody's comin'.”

“Horses? “Larabee asked.

The tracker didn’t reply but held up a hand in warning and motioned them to hide. They withdrew further into the woods and stood motionless to let the riders pass by.

There was still enough light to make the riders more than shadows as they passed by in single file and it was easy for the three peacekeepers to make out Marshal Top Hat Bob, followed by nine of his men. They rode swiftly towards Royal's house. Within a few moments they had passed by.

“I have a feeling things are warming up for Royal,” Chris said with a satisfied grin as the Texan squatted at his side.

“Yeah," the tracker agreed,” ‘n we are gonna make ‘em warmer.”

“What do you mean?" Chris inquired warily.

“Well, we're gonna smoke the sly old fox out this time,” Vin said, with a nod of his head.

+ + + + + + +

Royal came out of the house, to the porch, watching the upcoming riders.

As the men rode into the yard, Marshal Top Hat Bob dismounted his horse. "They almost got us," he said as he approached Royal, limping badly.

“What happened?” Royal asked.

“Larabee and his men shot at us and then the cavalry chased us.”

Stiffening, Royal barked, "Get inside! We gotta make plans!"

"Ain't willin' to stay on, Guy. I quit. Only came back to warn ya and to pick up my wages," the bulky man stammered out, holding his heavily bandaged arm.

"I don't owe you anything, you yellow-livered coward," Royal spat, snorting breath from his nostrils. "So you get back on your horse and git outta my property before I order my men to shoot you and your bunch of good-for-nothing rustlers in the back!"

Top Hat flushed with rage, clenching his fists. “As you wish, Royal,” he growled. He returned to his horse, grabbed at the saddle horn and hauled himself up. “See ya in hell,” he snarled, then nodded to his posse and they rode away.

From his hiding place Vin looked down at the ranch. He saw Royal‘s men gathering near the main building as the riders left. He turned to his companions. “We’ve got a good diversion. I’m gettin’ a bit closer.”

Once more Chris tossed his head. “ I hope you know what you are doing, Vin,” he sighed. The Texan ‘s lips opened slightly then closed into a firm thin line.

“If I didn’t, I wont’ be here, Chris, " he said, in a hoarse whisper. Then he turned his face to the sky, his nostrils flared, sensing the air. “After I leave, wait fer a spell, then set fire ta the grass on the right side of the hill. The wind will bring it straight to the pastureland. I want ‘em a bit busy, ya know?” he instructed with a lopsided grin.

"May the Lord guide your steps, brother Vin,“ Josiah said, putting a hand on Tanner’s lean shoulder.

“He will, preacher, he will, “ the tracker whispered with a warm smile. Then he walked away almost like a wild creature, on his toes and loose in the ankles, heading for the sparse trees surrounding the ranch. Darting from tree to tree he approached the buildings, from the rear side.

In slow, measured paces, Vin reached a large bush and crouched behind it. From this position, he could see the house, corrals and the bunkhouse. Figuring Nettie might be held in the same little room he'd been in a few days ago, he felt a sudden inexpressible tenderness sweep though him at the thought of her in that small, windowless room.

A faint sound of footsteps brought him abruptly back from his reverie. A man was coming. As he walked past the bush that Vin was hidden behind, the tracker grabbed him, hauled him down by the head, pinning him to the ground with his weight and pushing his knife into the man's throat.

"Not a sound or I'm gonna slice yer throat," the Texan growled in his ear. "Now, where's the woman?"

“I don’t know.”

Vin nicked the shaking man's skin, drawing a bead of blood. "Last chance," he hissed.

The man swallowed. He was bigger than the slim tracker, but had been defeated by the element of surprise. “In the old barn,” he muttered.

"How many guards are there?“ Vin wanted to know.

“Don’t know.” More pressure with the sharp blade, a fresh trickle of blood.

“Two on watch, the others went to the house. Please, don’t kill me!” the man pleaded.

Vin grinned in the dark and hit the man solidly on the side of the head. All resistance went out of the body. The sharpshooter tied the cowpuncher’s wrists using the man’s belt and gagged him with the bandanna he was wearing. Then he dragged him under the bushes.

The moon disappeared beneath a cloud and Tanner carefully crossed from the corral towards the barn. He examined the building: there was no entrance except for the little shuttered hatch on the hayloft. His sharp eyes saw a thin line of light behind the half opened shutters. The barn was old and the base of the wooden wall having suffered some damage over years, had been reinforced with split logs fastened on the top of the sill – beam. Vin climbed up easily, schooling his mind to ignore the throbbing in his ribs. And as he reached the hatch, he put a hand firmly on the bar sealing it and slid his left thigh along the sill, biting his lips at the stab of pain from his healing wounds. He shifted his weight further forward to ease the tension in his sinews when all of a sudden the wood splintered. The sill swung down before him, sending his body slithering to the ground. It wasn't a long fall, nor did it a loud noise, but enough in the dead silence to be heard.

Tanner was on his feet when he hit the ground, and for a moment he stood against the wall, trying to catch his breath. He saw two guards converging towards him. He tried to haul himself up, but a strange weakness seized him. He stumbled to the ground.

One of Royal's men approached and thrust his booted foot into Vin’s damaged ribs. The tracker groaned and tried to get up by pushing himself to one knee, hands reaching for his knife. The man raised his shotgun and swung the stock at Vin’s head. Tears sprang into the Texan’s eyes. The flashing explosion of rocketing pain was so fierce, that his hand lost its grip. The guard pulled back a thigh fist and hammered it into Vin’s stomach. Almost instinctively the young man curled up to protect himself. Kneeling at his side the man reached down and took the tracker by his long hair, twisting his face around to look at it closely.

“Lookie here, the savage has come back,” he laughed harshly.

Vin was manhandled onto his back, his attackers kicking at him, but the Texan could no longer feel the pain, a foggy mist engulfed his brain and he lost consciousness.

+ + + + + + +

It was deathly quiet in the woods. The full moon was now shining bright in the sky.

Chris had moved further down the hill and now was hidden where the tree line curved, no more than thirty yards from Royal's corral fence. His eyes were glued to the house, where there came some noises and shouts.

Suddenly one of the guards came from the barn, toting a Winchester. He headed directly to Royal, who was standing in the doorway of the house. They talked a minute and then hurried towards the barn.

Larabee felt his heart skip a beat then pump wildly as a shiver ran down his spine. He crawled back to the clearing where Josiah had stayed.

"What's wrong, Chris?" Josiah asked, concerned for his friend.

"They've got Vin," Chris rasped out, his throat so dry he could hardly get the words out.

Sanchez stole a glimpse into Chris' green eyes and saw the naked fear there before Larabee lowered the brim of his black hat, avoiding his friend's scrutiny.

“What are we going to do?”

“Only chance we got is to do as he suggested,“ Chris said with a sigh.

Chris squatted before the little fire Josiah had started. In it’s red light the sweat and the weariness made a harsh mask of his face.

Larabee stood, stuck a branch into the fire and tilted it downward so that the flames came up greedily towards his hand. His arms went back and he was going to fling the burning branch when he heard the faint sound of a trumpet. The gunslinger glanced back over his shoulder and saw a half troop of cavalry emerging from the hills. Behind the soldiers came a wagon from which someone sat and waved at him. It pulled to a rattling stop by the little camp, the horses blowing and sweating from the exhaustive trip.

“I’m getting too old for these kinds of games," said Judge Travis’ deep voice as he climbed down.

Chris let the branch fall onto the fire and approached him.

"Well, Larabee, I came this far to personally put the noose around Guy Royal's neck," the Judge said with a satisfied smirk.

Then he looked around.

“Where's Tanner?" he wanted to know. "I was told he was out here with you."

"We couldn't stop him, Judge. He went to the ranch and we think they might have captured him," Josiah told him.

"I shouldn't have put him in this situation, "Travis mused, frowning and shifting his piercing gaze from Chris' tense face to Josiah's somber expression. "Let's get things settled here."

Chris pulled his coat back and the firelight glinted on his cartridge belt. “Go ahead, Judge, I’m ready," he growled, stepping to his horse, Josiah following.

+ + + + + + +

Royal's men dragged the unconscious tracker into the little room and let him drop onto the ground. Nettie rose from the chair in which she was sitting and ran towards the fallen man. She went to her knees at Vin's side, putting her arm under his head, taking it into her lap. She gasped at the sight of his badly bruised face.

"Vin?" she called anxiously, caressing his cheek.

At the touch the tracker stirred. The thick lashes fluttered and confused blue eyes stared straight at her. There was a quick flash of alarm in them then a second look, half - relieved, as he recognized the old woman.

“Miz Nettie, “Vin said and a slow smile lit up his pale features. With a painful intake of breath he went on, “You . . . all right?"

“Ain’t the one to worry about here, son,” Nettie murmured, smoothing the soft locks that habitually fell on Vin’s brow.

The guard on the other side of the room chuckled, “Yeah, yer right ma’m. Mr. Royal is gonna beat the tar outta of that savage and hang him as well,” he spat out.

The door flung open and a man called out,” Mart!”

The guard turned, “What’s the hell is goin’ on?” he asked.

“The Army's comin’,” the other man said hurriedly.

“The Army?”

"Yeah. They're the ones that chased Top Hat's posse and now they're close. I came ta fetch ya. They'll be here shortly. No time left, we got to go now . . ."

Mart paled; there was panic in his face. He gave a stifled exclamation and stumbled out of the room.

Vin listened intently and from below he heard sounds in the stables; a confused babble of voices and fainter noises of horses being saddled, stirrups creaking as men mounted up.

“What happens now?" Nettie asked.

"We hafta git outta here, Ma'am." Vin said, fighting to sit up and at last managing to stand on unsteady feet with Nettie’s support.

They headed for the open door but had made only a few steps when a figure stumbled out of the corridor and lurched into them.

It was Royal. “There is no way out for you two,“ he growled.

Vin pulled Nettie behind his back.

Royal stepped back and started to raise his gun, but Vin kicked it out of his hand, sending it clattering to the floor. They lunged for each other.

Vin forgot every pain he had, everything, but his desire to smash this bastard into the ground. They rolled together, hands tearing at each other.

Royal hit him hard on his side and the tracker cried out, crashing back against the floor. He felt something press against his bare back and he scrabbled for it as Royal moved to deliver a blow to his unprotected face. Vin's right hand snaked out from under his body, holding the gun. He pulled the trigger.

Royal was thrown back against the wall by the force of the slug.

A strange look of bitterness and pain crossed his face. The rancher folded his hands over the wound and sagged slowly before rolling over on his back.

Vin sat breathless onto the dirt and Nettie appeared beside him.

“Lay down, boy, it’s over. We're all safe now," she soothed, hugging him hard.

Vin tried to speak, but somehow the words refused to come.

He leaned on her and closed his eyes. He was aware of the door opening and heard the chiming of spurred boots on the wooden floor, coming towards him. A strong hand was laid on his arm-- Chris' hand. He had just enough time to be grateful for the warm arms surrounding him before he gave into the unconscious, soft, blackness that called out his name.

The heart could never speak
But that the Word was spoken.
Nearer I came
To find the secret place
Where Friendship dwells.

The End