Old Ghosts by The Neon Gang


Editors' Note: The original version of this story first appeared in the Mag 7 zine, Let's Ride #14, published by Neon RainBow Press, Cinda Gillilan and Jody Norman, editors. When we all decided to post the stories that have appeared in the issues of Seven Card Stud that are more than two years old, we opted to use a generic pen name because, while Michelle Fortado and Deyna Greywolf were the primary authors of this story, they had so much help from the other folks writing for the press that it just made sense to consider the story to be written by the Neon RainBow Press Collective! Resistance was futile. So, thanks to the whole Neon Gang – Dori Adams, Sierra Chaves, Dana Ely, Michelle Fortado, Patricia Grace, Dani Martin, Erica Michaels, Nina Talbot, Kasey Tucker, Rebecca Wright, and Lorin and Mary Fallon Zane. Story lasted edited 7-12-2010. Art by Shiloh. 

Chris sat, watching as JD stared out the window at the passing landscape outside. Excitement and wonder filled the younger man's expression.
The train rattled and shook, beginning another climb over another hill, leading them deeper into the San Juan Mountains. The land outside was as wild and untamed as it was beautiful and compelling, and he couldn't help but smile as he continued to watch JD and his wide-eyed enthusiasm.
Shifting his attention to Josiah, Larabee's smile widened as a soft snore escaped the older man. Vin and Ezra sat closest to the aisle, occupied in a silent, intense game of poker.
Ezra regularly glanced up to peer out the window as well, admiring the passing scenery, but Vin remained withdrawn and remote, ignoring the scenery and all of their on-again, off-again attempts at conversation. The gambler had finally resorted to the card game as a way to give them something to do besides deal with Vin's strained silence.
Still, a warm feeling of contentment washed over the gunslinger as he watched his men, his friends. There had been a time, not so long ago, when he had doubted he would ever find any peace, but he had, with the help of these men.
When he'd watched Fowler walk into that burning barn, he'd felt like his whole world had come crashing down around him, just like the burning timbers of that structure. Rage and despair had almost destroyed him, but the companionship of the six men who traveled with him now had somehow seen him through that dark time, and the even darker one that followed him finally learning the truth about Ella Gaines.
Looking back, he knew he'd been as close to giving up after he was shot at Ella's ranch than at any time in his life. If not for the determination of these men, and especially Vin, he was sure he'd be dead by now. But they had simply refused to let him surrender to the pain and the heartache.
Eventually, Ella had reared her head once more just like he'd known she would. And he had killed the bitch.
She hadn't gone down without a fight, though, and it had been Vin who had nearly paid the price for the woman's unholy obsession. But, Vin hadn't died, because the six of them wouldn't let that happen, either. They took care of each other, no matter what.
JD finally broke the silence that had fallen among them when Josiah had drifted off to sleep, with a whispered, "It's so… beautiful. It's like something out of a storybook."
Ezra and Vin both looked up from their game at that.
"It's beautiful all right," Vin said quietly, glancing out the window for the first time Chris could remember seeing. "But it's dangerous, too, JD. Ain't no bedtime story out there."
"Didn't really think it was, Vin," JD replied, "but it's still… breathtaking, like what you'd read about in a book."
Ezra laid his cards down and glanced out past Josiah – who was sleeping on the far side of Chris, next to the window – for a better look. He met JD's eyes and grinned. If Vin was going to talk, they might as well take advantage of it.
"Have you spent time in these parts?" the gambler asked Vin.
"Some," was the taciturn reply as Vin shuffled the deck. "Maybe too much."
Chris knew the tracker was trying to tell them something, but he couldn't find the words.
The blond wished, not for the first time, he could climb inside Tanner's mind. Every time he thought he really understood what motivated the younger man, something new came up to show him that he still knew next to nothing about Vin Tanner.
The others might think he and Vin could read each other's minds, and to a point they could, that was true, but there were depths to the tracker he could only marvel at. And the man's past was still mostly a mystery. Oh, they knew a few scattered facts, but when those were strung together they only raised more questions than they answered.
Before Ezra could question Vin any further, Josiah spoke from his hunched position in the corner, eyes still closed. "These mountains can break a man, or make him… just depends."
"I thought you were asleep," Ezra said with a light chuckle.
"Depends on what?" JD asked, curious as always.
"The man, mostly," the former priest replied as he scratched his chin whiskers, then he snuggled down farther into his jacket. He folded his arms across his chest, obviously finished with the conversation.
Chris watched as Vin glanced out the window again. Tanner's expression was veiled by memories from some hidden part of his past. Concerned, the blond reached across the space and rested his hand on the tracker's knee. "Vin, you all right?"
Vin blinked rapidly and the veil lifted. He met Larabee's gaze. "Yeah, 'm fine."
Chris leaned back, knowing touch made the tracker uncomfortable. He wasn't sure why, but he'd learned to respect the distance Tanner preferred people keep. And, as a result, he was able to encroach into the man's space more often than the others. That privilege – and he considered it one – made him proud.
"Vin…" JD said a little hesitantly. "It looked like you were kind of far away. What were you thinking about?"
"Nothin' important," Tanner replied, dipping his head and dealing the cards.
"Come now," Ezra urged, picking up his hand, "why not share what was on your mind? It might help alleviate the monotony."
Vin looked up and met Ezra's gaze. "Said it's nothin'," he replied, his voice turning hard. Then, as if suddenly realized how he'd sounded, Tanner sighed and tossed his cards down, then pushed to his feet and walked away, exiting the railcar at the far end.
The four men sat in stunned silence for a moment, then Chris pushed himself up and followed the tracker.
"What's got into Vin?" JD asked as he watched Chris step outside, then close the door behind him.
"I have no earthly idea," Ezra told him. "Mr. Tanner wasn't particularly excited about this trip…" He met JD's concerned gaze. "…but this is most unlike him."
"You ever think about how there's so much we don't know about him," JD said. "Maybe some of his past is catchin' up with him…
"Best we don't get in the way then," Josiah offered. "That's liable to mean trouble."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Chris found Vin standing just outside the door, leaning against the railing that enclosed the small landing outside the passenger car. Closing the door behind him, he leaned back against it and asked, "You want to talk about whatever's eating on you?"
"No," Vin replied, turning his back on his friend.
"Vin," Larabee said, getting worried now, "you know we wouldn't hold any of your past against you, don't you?"
"Reckon I do," Vin replied, the passing wind nearly stealing the words away before Larabee heard them.
Chris stepped closer. "All right… I won't press you; never liked it much when it's done to me, but when you're ready, we'll listen." And with that he turned to go back inside, only stopping because Vin reached out and grabbed his arm.
"It's somethin' that—" He stopped, searching for the right words to describe the feelings churning inside his guts. He sighed heavily and released Larabee's arm with a shrug. "Can't," he said, shaking his head, "just can't right now."
"All right, but just remember we're here – when you're ready." Chris reached up and squeezed the tracker's shoulder. "You're not alone anymore, Vin. None of us are."
Tanner nodded.
Turning, Larabee entered the railcar and closed the door, leaving Vin alone with his agitated thoughts, the chill mountain air, and the stark beauty they were passing through.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
As Chris slid back into his seat he was met by a pair of questioning gazes. He waved Ezra and JD silent as they both started to question him, saying, "Look, whatever has Vin upset, he's not ready to talk about it. When he is, he will. Until then, don't press him." He glanced over at Josiah. "You hear that, preacher?"
"Loud and clear, brother," was the older man's reply.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Vin remained outside, cold air rushing past him faster as the train picked up speed on a downgrade. Gripping the frigid metal railing, he watched his hands tremble, not with cold, but with fear. Memories flooded his thoughts and he fought to keep them buried, but they crept in like the chill, the onslaught overwhelming his defenses and weakening his knees.
He closed his eyes and bowed his head, the icy wind carrying his words away in thin white wisps as they pushed past his clenched teeth. "I'm not goin' t' die. I won't let y' kill me…"
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
It had been a twelve-year-old Vin Tanner who had killed his first man, but it had been a fourteen-year-old Vin Tanner who had taken his first bullet and nearly died himself.
After running away from the orphanage in Texas that had taken him in after the Army "rescued" him from the Kiowa, Vin had fallen in with a rough crowd of outlaws who rode in the northern portions of the New Mexico and Arizona Territories.
When he had eventually refused to go along with a job that included killing three innocent people, reining his horse away and trying to ride off, the outlaw leader had taken offence. They exchanged fire and while Vin managed to escape, it was with a bullet in his back. He had fled into the mountains, growing sicker with each passing mile.
Cold, tired, and hurting, Vin had ended up wandering aimlessly for almost a day before he passed out and slipped off his horse. When he woke, he wandered some more, his fever rising, his ability to help himself failing. Finally, as a thick snow started to fall, he stepped right into a smooth-rimmed animal trap.
His resulting scream brought an old mountain man on the run. He carried the injured boy back to his cabin where he removed the bullet and nursed Vin back to health. They spent nearly a year together, the old man teaching the teen everything he could. And the boy had learned fast.
Vin had been more than ready to settle in and stay with the old man, but with winter upon them old Dan had had a dream. The next day, he told Vin to pack up and get out.
When Vin pressed him on the reason why, Dan told Vin that he wasn't safe on the mountain anymore. And, as long as Vin wasn't safe there, then neither was he.
"I don't understand," Vin had said, hurt and confused.
"It's the mountain herself, boy. She's alive. They all are. They come t' me in m' dreams, an' they talk t' me. She told me. She said she'll see ya dead. Not all of 'em, just her. She wants t' cradle your bones forever. If ya stay here, maybe she'll turn on me, too. Ya gotta leave, boy. Ya gotta leave and don't never come back, ya hear? You come back, she'll have your soul fer sure."
And so Vin had left, returning south to the deserts where he'd grown up with the Kiowa. He never returned to the San Juan Mountains, and the mountain that wanted to kill him.
That had been years ago, and he'd thought he'd forgotten all about the incident. But now, as he traveled through the same mountains, the memories and the fears of that young boy, buried so long ago, had risen to choke in his throat.
He shouldn't have come, but they were transporting four prisoners, and Travis had wanted all of them to go, to ensure the men reached their destination and the trial that waited for them there. Even now Buck and Nathan were in the railcar with the four shackled men, two of them watching the outlaws at all times.
He'd tied to back out, arguing that they shouldn't leave the town undefended, but the judge had his mind made up, and he hadn't wanted to raise a fuss. One way or the other, he was going to have to face his fear, and beat it.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
When Vin finally returned to his seat, he was met by three concerned stares and silence. He was grateful Chris had said something to them, and he kept his emotions under a tight rein, silently praying the other men didn't see the fear he was hiding.
Chris noted the paleness of his friend's face, and the tension stretched across his features. But it was the air of doom that clung to Vin's shoulders like a wet blanket that troubled him the most. He'd never seen the tracker afraid like this, and he didn't like it.
Vin, however, was grateful for their continued silence, and he forced himself to stare out the window, refusing to make eye contact with any of them. He knew he'd have to tell them, eventually, but he needed time to sort out the past and place it properly in the present.
Still, in the rattling quiet of the railcar he soon realized that their presence gave him a sense of strength and comfort he'd never had before, and he finally offered JD a half-hearted grin.
The younger man responded, reaching over to briefly touch Vin's arm in a wordless show of support.
Ezra started to say something, but the train began to brake unexpectedly, interrupting him.
Vin caught JD as the younger man was pitched forward from his seat. And Ezra found his hands full with Chris.
Josiah had a rude awakening as he bounced to the floor. "What's goin' on?" he demanded as he scrambled back into his seat, watching as the others untangled themselves as well.
There were only a dozen or so additional passengers on the train headed to the still wild and growing mining town of Clearview, but they moved about the car, peering out the windows and trying to see what the problem was. The peacekeepers joined them, JD lagging back to gather up their scattered belongings first.
"There," Chris said, pointing to the tracks ahead.
Vin and Josiah leaned over next to him to look.
"Avalanche?" Josiah asked.
"Looks like," Vin replied as he shook his head in disgust at the tangle of snow, rocks, and trees that was apparently blocking the tracks.
The door to the passenger car opened and the conductor entered. "Sorry about that unexpected stop, folks," he said. "As you can see, we're not goin' anywhere 'til we move the debris off the tracks. I'd rightly appreciate it if you men could lend a hand." He turned and exited the car, the handful of male passengers filing out after him.
Ezra looked at Chris. "Uh, I believe I should stay here, in case Misters Wilmington and Jackson need any support…"
"Ezra, you aren't so old you can't move a few rocks," Larabee growled.
"But if I go out there, I'll look like one of those miscreants when we reach Clearview," Ezra told him. "First impressions being what they are—"
"Ezra…" Larabee growled.
"Besides," JD interrupted, "we don't move this stuff, won't be anyone for you to impress."
Ezra huffed but a breath, but he knew he was stuck helping.
Josiah grinned and nodded. "An extra pair of hands will make it go that much faster, brother," he told Ezra.
"Josiah," Chris said, "check and make sure Buck and Nathan are okay."
The big man nodded, watching as the other peacekeepers left before he turned and started back to the trailing railcar where the prisoners were being held.
His progress, however, was short-lived. He heard the pound of boot heels moments before men boarded from the rear of the car. The women and children left behind swiveled in their seats only to find three men with handkerchiefs over half their faces, their guns drawn. Several of the women gasped, but no one screamed.
"Howdy, folks," one of the men greeted them in friendly tones. "I want all of you good people to put your hands on your heads, so no one gets hurt."
Josiah sat down in the closest seat and put his hands on his head as they'd asked, knowing he couldn't risk the men firing in the tight quarters.
The rest of the passengers complied as well, some of the children beginning to cry softly. The three men spread out down the length of the car so that everyone was covered by one of the armed men.
"Now, if you'd be so kind as to remove all your jewelry, and take out all your money," the same man said. "We'll be gone before you know it."
Once again the people, including Josiah, complied.
When the speaker held out a sack to Josiah to place his money in, an old woman across the aisle said, "Seems crazy, robbin' us like this with all those men out there."
"Not so crazy, old woman," the speaker said, and, a moment later gun and rifle fire could be heard outside.
A few of the women screamed then and Josiah moved to stand, but the leader shoved him roughly back into his seat and hooked the barrel of his revolver under the former priest's chin. "Not so crazy with all them men out there dead, is it?"
Another outlaw entered from the front of the car. "Got the forward car. Trailing one is locked up tight; can't get in. Let's go."
"Hurry up, ladies," the leader growled, "or we'll take one of you with us so's we can have some fun." He leaned over Josiah slightly, his eyes narrowing slightly as he stared at the young woman Sanchez was now sitting next to. "Like this pretty little thing over here, maybe."
The outlaws quickly finished collecting the valuables, everyone rushing now to hand over their items. Josiah wrapped his arm around the young woman's shoulders protectively and glowered defiantly at the outlaw.
The man chuckled at Sanchez's bravado. "I want to thank you all for your cooperation," he said, then left the car behind the others. He paused in the doorway to add, "You all just stay in your seats for a bit. We see anyone stickin' their head out, might be we just shoot it off."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Chris and Vin were carrying what was left of a small tree off the tracks when the gunfire began to rain down on them and the other men. Vin watched Chris go down, a bright red stain spreading down the blond's face.
Vin dropped the trunk and swung around, drawing his Mare's Leg with the kind of speed that had made Larabee respected and feared.
After killing the man who had fired on Chris, the tracker dove for cover. A bullet raked across his upper arm, making him hiss, but he knew it wasn't anything serious. He turned and rose, ready to return fire, but one of the other passengers charged in front of him, trying to escape the slaughter. A shotgun blast roared, the passenger's chest exploding, showering Vin with blood and gore.
The force of the blast hurled the already dead man straight into Tanner, knocking the tracker down. Vin landed with the corpse across his mid-section and legs, his head connecting with a rock buried under the snow.
Knocked unconscious, Vin looked like he had been killed by the same blast that had murdered the other passenger.
The firing continued until all of the passengers were down, then the outlaws rummaged through the pockets of the dead men.
One of the shooters had just bent down over Chris when the rest of their gang emerged from the railcar and motioned for them to leave.
The outlaw kicked Chris' leg once, then turned and left.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Josiah watched from a window until the riders disappeared into the trees, then lunged out of the car, running to the blockage. He halted when he reached the scene of the carnage. Twelve men lay scattered across the snow and debris. Steam rose from some of their wounds and a fine red mist painted the dirty snow in nightmarish patterns.
He recognized Chris first and moved to kneel next to his friend as a few of the women began to venture out. At first Josiah was as fooled as the bandits had been by Chris' head wound, but then he saw the blond take a deep breath and his eyes moved under his lids, but they didn't open.
"Chris?" Josiah called, helping him to sit up. "Chris, you all right?"
The man's green eyes flew wide. "Ambush! Vin!"
"Easy, easy," Josiah soothed. "Let's get you back into the train."
Helping Chris to his feet, Josiah half-carried, half-dragged the blond back to the railcar, passing the women as they slowly moved out to look for their husbands, fathers, and sons.
"Chris!" Buck said as he stepped out from the prisoner car. He ran over and helped Josiah, guiding the pair back inside the passenger car and into the first empty seat they reached.
Josiah met the ladies' man's horrified gaze. "I have to go back—"
Buck nodded. "I'll get this cleaned up."
Leaving Buck to work on Chris, he turned to go back outside, but Nathan caught him before he could leave the car. "Who—?"
"I found Chris. He's hurt, but he's alive. I don't know about the others," Josiah said. "Get these women back inside. It's too ugly out there. I'll check the bodies."
Nathan nodded.
Leaving the train, Josiah walked back to the ambush site and proceeded with the gruesome job of checking through the bodies. The conductor had been hit in the face, only his uniform revealing his identity, but he found two more survivors that he helped back into the train with Nathan's assistance.
Leaving them in the care of their wives and Nathan, he turned to leave, but hesitated at the landing, afraid of what he was going to find.
Buck came up to him, saying, "I'll go. You help Nathan."
"No," Josiah replied softly. "I'll help you find them." Taking a deep breath, he stepped back into the snow.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
When Josiah finally found Vin all his worst fears seemed to be confirmed. His friend lie, eyes closed, blood, bone, and bits of flesh covering his face and chest. The body of another man lay across the tracker's midsection and legs, making it impossible to see if Tanner was still breathing.
Kneeling down, Josiah placed a trembling hand on Vin's head, then pushed back the man's long hair, looking for a wound. Despite his best efforts, tears filled his eyes but stubbornly refused to fall.
Under the ministrations, Vin moaned quietly and his eyes fluttered opened.
"Vin?" Josiah asked as he pushed the body of the dead man off his friend. "Vin, don't move."
"Chris?" the younger man asked as he struggled to sit up, his gaze darting over the carnage in panicked concern.
"Chris is alive," Josiah said as he placed his arm behind his friend's back to support him as he continued to look him over. "Took a nasty crease on his forehead. Can you stand?"
Vin nodded. "I'm all right."
Not believing him, Josiah helped Tanner to his feet.
Vin winced, and the preacher found the arm wound. "Come on, let's get you inside so Nathan can take a look at you, too."
Vin nodded and took a few independent steps back toward the train before he sank to his knees in the snow. Taking a deep, shuddering breath his chin dropped down to touch his chest.
Josiah moved quickly to the tracker's side. "Vin, you sure you're not hurt someplace else?"
Vin shook his head, but he didn't speak.
"Vin, what's wrong?"
All the tracker could do was shake his head again. The mountain had struck out at him, and all these men were dead. Chris had almost died… And what about Ezra and JD?
"Never should've come back here," he whispered.
"What did you say?" Josiah asked, concerned. He'd never seen Vin react to anything like this. When Vin didn't answer, he reached down and helped him to his feet. "Come on, let's get inside."
Vin looked up at his friend, his eyes bleak, then he slumped unconscious into the taller man's arms. Josiah lifted him and carried him back into the car.
Inside, the women sat in small groups, crying and comforting one another, or working over their injured men. Nathan and JD were dressing Chris' head wound. Josiah was relieved to see the younger man was unhurt, and he looked around for Ezra, but he didn't see him.
When they saw Josiah carrying the bloody, still form, both men sat down heavily. JD gasped, tears immediately running over his cheeks. Chris reached out to comfort him, his face gone colorless and emotionless.
Larabee pushed to his feet and walked over to meet Josiah. Touching Vin's shoulder and then his face, he looked up at Sanchez and asked, "He's dead?"
"No," Josiah whispered, touched by the depth of the gunslinger's feelings for the man who was like a brother to him, "just passed out. A man near him was hit by a shotgun blast. It's that man's blood."
"Thank God," Nathan whispered.
Josiah carried Vin over and laid him down on a seat. "He's okay, I think," he assured the men.
Nathan took a handkerchief, poured some water on it and wiped the blood off Vin's face. That brought the younger man around and he sat up, asking again about Chris.
The blond responded, sitting down across from Vin and saying, "Hey, pard. How are you doing?"
"How are you?"
"I'll be fine. You know how hard-headed I can get."
The comment brought a small smile to Vin's face, but glancing around at the women in the car quickly took it away.
Nathan finished cleaning Vin's face, then helped him out of the bloody shirt and cleaned his arm.
As the healer continued to work on Vin, Buck returned with Ezra, who had also been grazed by one of the many shots, the bullet digging out a furrow along his ribs.
"The prisoners?" Chris asked Buck.
"They're still shackled to the iron bars in there. They ain't going anywhere."
Chris nodded. "Take JD and keep an eye on them; Nathan's going to have his hands full in here." He looked over at JD, asking, "You all right, son?"
JD nodded, looking a little pale, but unhurt. His cheeks had gone red, though and he said, "Yeah, I'm fine. Tripped over a damn rock or something, fell down before any of the shooting even started."
"Probably saved your life," Buck said, wrapping his arm around JD's shoulders and guiding the younger man away.
Chris turned his attention back to Nathan, who was now working on Ezra. "He going to be okay?"
"Looks like," the healer replied. "I'll know more once he wakes up."
Josiah had already left again, helping to check the remaining men outside.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
"But, Chris, don't you think—" Nathan tried to argue, but Larabee cut him off.
"I'm not hurt so bad I can't keep up," he told the healer.
"I should go alone," Vin said for what felt like the tenth time.
"We've already laid that issue to rest," Josiah snapped, but instantly regretted it. He looked at his friends, wanting to argue his point, but he knew they were right. If he went along he'd just slow Vin down. "If I stay, then Chris is going with you. You can't go alone, Vin."
Vin's jaw twitched, but he nodded, knowing there was no way he was winning this argument, not with all of them set against him.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
"Vin, be careful," Nathan cautioned as he packed the last few items for them to take. "You, too, Chris."
"We will," Larabee promised him.
The two men left the others – Buck and JD guarding the prisoners, Josiah and Nathan helping the survivors, Ezra still unconscious – stepping out into the snow. They stood together for a moment, looking around them. A light snowfall had covered the dead in shrouds of white. Both men shivered.
"Which way?" Chris asked in a whisper.
"This way," Vin responded in the same quiet voice. He started off, his gaze taking in the mountain ahead of them. "There's a pass up there that'll save us two days, if I c'n find it."
"Think you can?"
"Spent a year on that mountain… I c'n find it."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Josiah and Nathan watched until the pair was obscured by the trees.
"Why are they going up the mountain?" the healer asked. "Wouldn't it be easier if they just followed the tracks?"
"Vin must know a shorter route," Josiah said reassuringly, hiding the anxiety he felt himself. "I've heard there's a pass in these parts, must be that."
"Don't worry," Ezra said, trying to sit up. "They can take care of themselves. Vin knows what he's doing."
"Easy," Josiah said, helping the man to sit. "We thought you were out, brother."
"Drifting in and out," the gambler admitted.
"I'm not worried about Vin," Nathan said. "But with a head wound… Don't know if Chris will be able to make it if the climb gets too woolly."
"They'll be fine," Josiah said, sitting down next to Ezra. "I just wish I knew what was bothering Vin. He's not himself."
"Excuse me, but how long will it take for help to get here?" a woman asked them.
"Anywhere from two to eight days," Josiah told her truthfully.
"So long?" another asked.
"I'm afraid so," Josiah said. "But we have plenty of wood and water. We have shelter, and if we share our food, it shouldn't be too uncomfortable."
The women nodded.
Nathan stood. "I'm going to go see what else I can do for the wounded."
Josiah nodded. "Call me if you need me."
"I will."
"And what should I do?" Ezra asked, uncharacteristically volunteering.
"You stay put and rest," Nathan told him. "I want to make sure you're all right. If you are, then you can help Buck and JD with the prisoners."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
By late afternoon the heavy snowfall had left an additional half-foot of powder on the accumulated snow-pack, and the weather was only getting worse. Four hours of hiking through the snow had left the two peacekeepers tired and breathless.
Chris' head hurt, but he kept his discomfort to himself for as long as he could. But, after stumbling three times in as many steps, he leaned heavily onto a boulder and called after Vin, who was walking a few yards ahead of him.
"Hold up, Vin. I need to rest a little while."
The tracker looked back from where he stopped, then turned and retraced his steps to rejoin Larabee. "Can't stop out here, Cowboy," he said. "We'll freeze t' death. Have t' keep movin' 'til we find shelter."
"I can't keep up this pace," Chris admitted, a little ashamed. "I can barely keep my eyes focused." He met the tracker's neutral expression. "You were right. I should've stayed behind. I'm only slowing you down."
"Come on," Vin said kindly, taking Chris' arm and positioning it across his shoulders and helping him to rise.
They started off again, struggling along for another hour before Vin found a spot that would afford them enough protection for the cold night ahead. Tanner knew he had to take the chance; Chris was too weak and too tired to go on. The blond's head hung low from the pain and his steps were becoming more and more uneven.
Vin sent a silent thanks to God or whatever Spirits had brought him to the huge fir tree that grew next to a rock overhang. Still supporting Chris, he helped the older man into the snow-free space. It was large enough for the pair to lie down and still leave room for a small fire at the opening. The ground was covered with plenty of pine needles for tinder and bedding, even if it was a little damp.
Settling Chris against the rock wall in the back of the almost-cave, Vin went to work. Taking a handful of needles that had been blown into the back of the opening and were still mostly dry, he started a small fire. Then, leaving Chris for a moment, he collected what damp wood he could find nearby and added that, piece by piece, to the tiny needle fire. After threatening to put the effort out, the damp wood finally caught and began to burn with a few pops and hisses. But the small fire gave off enough heat to take the biting chill out of the small space.
Vin frowned as he watched Chris shift and grimace in pain. Stripping off the heavy hide coat he wore, he placed it over Chris' chest and felt the man's forehead. A small fever had developed.
Chris opened his eyes and Vin quickly turned to the sack Nathan had packed before the blond said anything. Reaching in, he removed two pieces of jerky and handed one to Larabee. He saw the protest over the jacket in the man's eyes and said, "It's warm close t' the fire. Y'll need that if y' sleep back here."
Chris nodded his thanks and began to work on the jerky.
Placing more wood on the fire, Vin settled into a nest he had shaped out of the dry needles and ate his meat, then tried to join Chris in sleep.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Chris seemed stronger after a night's rest and both men sat in the shelter, hesitant about leaving. The chance of finding another one as good as this was next to impossible. During the night another six inches of fresh snow had fallen, the surface freezing in the cold overnight temperatures. The men discovered that fact when they stepped out and the crust collapsed under them. They sank into foot-deep powder.
But they knew they couldn't stay there. The others were depending on them to reach Clearview and send back help.
So, they pushed on through the loose snow until mid-morning when Vin finally stopped, annoyed with their lack of progress.
Chris enjoyed the rest while he watched the tracker fashion snowshoes out of pine boughs and strips of his shirt. Vin was still so much a mystery, so much of his past unspoken, and Chris hoped as he watched the man work that, one day, he'd know who Vin Tanner really was.
As soon as the tracker finished, they were off again.
Chris followed in the path Vin forged through the snow, the footwear making the going easier and faster.
"Where'd you learn such a useful trick?" Chris asked, hoping to get the tracker talking.
"Like I told y', I spent a year up here," was all Vin offered by way of an explanation.
"Just happened that way, that's all."
Chris sighed and gave up. If Vin wasn't ready to talk, there was just no dragging anything out of the man.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
By noon the weather had turned and a moderate snowfall slowed them down again. Vin pressed on, trying to find shelter while Chris followed his tracks, which were rapidly filling. A surge of panic overrode his good sense, and he called, "Vin?"
As soon as he heard Chris' call, Vin stopped and headed back to the man. He knew if Larabee kept yelling, he could touch off a snow slide. He caught sight of the blond through the trees. "Over here," he called back as quietly as he could.
Larabee saw Vin and waved, then started over to join him, but, after several steps, Chris cried out in pain and fell to the ground.
Tanner halted for a moment, then began to slug through the snow toward him as quickly as he could. As he drew near Larabee, he froze, stopped by a low, menacing growl that reached him from a stand of short pines not far away.
Vin waited, motionless, as he watched the pines and tried to reach the Mare's Leg, which was under his jacket.
A large, deadly-thin mountain lion emerged from the trees. It hissed, ears flat, teeth bared as it stalked deliberately between the two men.
"Don't move," Vin said quietly, gaze locked on the big cat.
"My leg," Chris replied through clenched teeth. "Stepped in a trap. Probably meant for him."
Vin nodded once to let Chris know he'd heard him, but the memories from his own ordeal, years earlier, flooded his thoughts. Old Dan had been right, the mountain was determined to kill him.
The cougar's tail twitched nervously and its shoulders hunched. The three waited, each taking account of the others, trying to find an opening.
Vin saw Chris grimace as he fought back the desire to grab his injured leg. Knowing he had to do something, Tanner's began to inch his hand closer to his gun. The big cat responded with a wicked snarl.
Risking the worst, Vin grabbed the gun and drew on the animal. The cougar, in a desperation born of starvation, responded just as quickly, and pounced.
The cat's jaws closed on Vin's gun arm, the power of the lunge carrying them back into the snow, the Mare's Leg flying from Tanner's hand.
Chris lunged for the fallen weapon, but the trap held him fast a foot short. Gasping in pain, he struggled to get his own gun free as Vin and the cat wrestled in the snow.
The cougar used claws and teeth to its advantage, tearing cloth and flesh with equal ease.
Vin grabbed the big cat along its neck, trying to keep the snapping teeth away from his face. The cougar's claws tore through the heavy material of the tracker's hide coat, opening furrows across Vin's chest.
Tanner hissed in pain and, using all the strength he had, threw the snarling animal aside.
Scrambling up onto his hands and knees, Vin reached the dropped Mare's Leg and, grabbing the weapon, swung it around and fired as the cat charged.
Despite the injury, the animal continued, plowing into Vin and getting in one last attack before going down.
Roughly pushing the dead cougar away, Vin tried to stand, but the pain and shock left his legs too weak to hold him. He crawled over to Chris.
"You all right?" Chris asked when he saw how pale the tracker was.
"Will be," Vin told him unconvincingly. He maneuvered to look at Larabee's leg, finding a toothless trap that had been laid in the hopes of catching an animal without destroying its fur. Chris' leg wasn't cut, but it was badly bruised.
"Hold on, I'll open it," Vin said, reaching for the sides of the trap. He put all the strength he had left into pulling the jaws apart.
"You sure you're all right?" Chris asked as he gingerly rubbed his freed leg. He could see the blood on Vin's chest, arm, and forehead and he leaned forward. "Let me take a look."
"No. We have t' find shelter first. I—" Vin broke off as he pitched forward into the snow, unconscious.
"Vin!" Chris said, fear coloring his voice. Moving closer to the tracker, he found the man was actually clawed up worse than he'd initially thought.
Shaking Vin's shoulders brought the younger man around and, leaning on each other, the two peacekeepers climbed to their feet and headed toward the summit of the narrow pass.
Just over the top Chris found a large, flat slab of stone leaning against three large boulders that the snow melt had uncovered. It was enough for a night's shelter.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Leaving Vin leaning back against one of the stones, Chris built a small fire out of damp wood and the paper Nathan had wrapped their jerky in. Then, placing some snow in a canteen, he melted it over the weakly burning fire and poured it onto strip of cloth to clean the tracker's wounds.
The punctures on Tanner's forearm from the big cat's teeth were already red and puffy.
His eyes still closed, Vin fought to keep from pulling his arm away as Chris worked over it. Worry ran rampant in the younger man's mind. The cougar shouldn't have attacked a full-grown man. Even in its emaciated condition, it shouldn't have been so bold. He remembered the animal's appearance. There had been no froth, no glazed eyes, but it still could have been rabid, and if it was…
Then the mountain had finally won.
Vin forced his eyes open and found Chris staring worriedly at him. He tried to smile, but the effort failed. "I'll be okay."
"You look like hell," Chris replied, rinsing out the cloth. He was just about to suggest that the two of them head back for the train, but the sound of a horse nickering cut him off.
The two men rose and moved out of the shelter, heading toward the source of the sound. Crouching in the short pines the mountain lion had hid in, they were well concealed as they watched nine riders cutting their way through the snow. Their horses sank into the drifts to their knees and they puffed with effort. Most were lathered despite the cold.
The body of the cougar that had attacked Vin lay tied across the packs of a mule one of the men led.
"Same ones who attacked the train," Chris said in a soft whisper.
Vin nodded his confirmation. "They're lookin' fer us. Let's get back, get that fire out."
The two moved and Chris extinguished the fire while Vin erased as much evidence of their presence as he could.
"We can't stay here," Larabee said. "They'll follow our tracks right to us."
"We'll go slow, cover our tracks."
"Won't the snow help?"
"Some," Vin told him, looking out at the heavy snowfall.
Neither man relished the idea of trying to move through the night, but they had no choice. The dark and the snow were their best chances for losing their pursuers.
"Once we get a head start, I'll lead them off so y' c'n get t' Clearview."
"Wait a minute, why you?" Chris argued. "You know where you're going. Besides, you're hurt, and if—"
"I'll make sure y' know how t' get there," Vin interrupted him. "Y' don't know this mountain. It'll be safer fer both 'a us this way."
"Vin," Chris said, concern overriding his good judgment, "if you build a fever, you'll have to stop. They'll catch you."
The younger man sighed and grabbed their gear. "It's settled, Chris. Yer goin' t' Clearview."
"Oh no, it's not," Larabee said, following the tracker out of the shelter.
"Hell, Chris, 'm gonna die anyway."
"That cat," Vin said matter-of-factly, "it was most likely rabid." He wasn't sure it was the truth, but if it got Chris off the mountain it would do.
Chris' face went pale as he whispered. "You can't be sure about that."
"Sure as I have t' be. Yer goin' t' Clearview," Vin said, a note of finality ringing in his voice. "Ain't no cure if 'm right. Don't want t' put the others through that." He looked up at Chris and smiled thinly. "If not, then I'll see ya back in Four Corners."
Larabee thought for a moment. "All right," he said. "I'll go to Clearview. But I'll have to tell them."
Vin gave him an appraising look. "Just promise me y'll keep 'em from lookin' fer me. Y' won't find me."
Chris nodded. There was nothing more he could do.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
They walked for the better part of the night, only stopping to rest an hour before dawn. Once the sun rose high enough to cast pale orange shadows across the mountain, Vin gave Chris directions to the mining camp.
"See that gap?" the tracker asked, pointing.
"Once yer through, angle east 'til y' find the river. It's two, three miles. The river'll probably be frozen. Follow it east 'n' it'll take y' right int' Clearview. The snow won't be so bad on this side 'n' there's more shelter. I'll head west, for Packhorse Pass." Vin waited, but Chris remained rooted where he was. "Go on now," he urged.
Chris took several steps, then turned and walked back to Vin, giving him a swift hug. "I'll see you back at Four Corners," he said, then turned and started out at a brisk pace.
"Hope yer right, Cowboy," was all Vin said, unsure if Chris had heard him or not. He turned and headed into the snow, walking west.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Chris followed Vin's directions, making much better time than he had anticipated. He reached the frozen folds of the river in early afternoon and followed the unmoving bends east, his thoughts crowded with how to tell the others about Vin when he saw them.
Late in the day, Chris stumbled into Clearwater. The miner who first found him helped him to the small tent that housed the company doctor. The man treated Chris while the miner went for the sheriff. When the grizzled, older man arrived, Chris told him what had happened.
"Yup, I'm gettin' familiar with the tricks them train robbers use up here in the winter and spring," the lawman said, shaking. "When the train was eight hours late I sent out a posse. They'll clear the tracks, gather the bodies and bring 'em back."
"When?" Chris asked.
"Should be in here t'marra."
Larabee lay on the cot, feeling like he wanted to cry, but the anger he also felt kept the tears away. Vin had sacrificed his life for nothing. They could've waited with the train.
After several hours of sleep, Chris made his way to the boarding house where he took a hot bath, ate a hot meal, and went to bed.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
The following morning, the other five peacekeepers stepped off the train cold, tired, and hungry, but none the worse for their ordeal, all things considering.
Chris had just finished his breakfast when the five men burst into the boarding house kitchen. The excitement in their eyes faded when they saw that Vin wasn't with him.
The older woman who ran the establishment stepped in, smiling. "Well now, you all look like you could use a hot bath and a big plate of my flapjacks and bacon. Come with me and I'll show you to your rooms."
Buck, JD, Nathan, and Ezra, left, but Josiah stayed behind with Chris.
"Is he alive?" the preacher asked quietly.
"I don't know," Chris replied truthfully. "The last time I saw him, he was heading west, leading the men who attacked the train off my trail."
"I don't understand," Josiah said, walking over to stand next to the warm stove. "Vin knows his way around out there. He should've been able to lead them off and get back here by now." He turned, meeting Chris' gaze. "What else is there?"
"I'll tell you the whole story," Chris said, "when the others get back."
Josiah poured himself a cup of coffee and sat down at the table to wait.
When the others returned to eat, Chris told them the entire tale, leaving nothing out. When he finished, Josiah poured himself a second cup of coffee, looking shaken.
"Rabid?" Nathan whispered. "We've got to go find him."
"He doesn't want us to find him," Chris countered. "He told me he'd make sure we couldn't."
"He does not have the right to make such a decision," Ezra said, anger in his voice. "Doesn't he know that we care about him?"
"He knows," Chris said. "But I would've done the same thing, and so would you – any of you."
Buck stood, anger in his eyes, but the truth of Chris' words were clear to the ladies' man, and the anger fled with his nod of agreement.
"But the infection from the attack—" Nathan said.
"I cleaned the wounds as best I could, but if he doesn't find help…" Larabee trailed off, glancing around at his friends.
"Vin's strong. He'll survive," JD said, staring down at his empty plate, the good food now sitting heavily on his stomach.
"Can't we go look for him?" Ezra asked.
Chris shook his head. "I gave him my word."
"But we didn't," Buck argued.
Josiah shook his head. "We're going to have to let him do his alone. That boy's got some powerful old ghosts he needs to face and destroy… or they're going to destroy him."
Chris nodded, and told them the story Vin had passed on to him while they had been on the train.
"But mountains can't want anything," JD argued, confused. "They're not alive."
"Son, some places like a mountain can have a spirit that's hard to understand," Josiah explained.
"The only thing that matters is what Mr. Tanner believes," Ezra stated.
Chris nodded. "I told him we'd meet him back in Four Corners, and that's what we're going to do."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Vin moved through the trees and the snow. He knew the outlaws were following him, but he also knew that when he reached Packhorse Pass they wouldn't be able to keep up with him on horseback. As he forced himself on, he prayed under his breath that Chris had reached Clearview, and safely.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
The next day found Vin on the far side of Packhorse Pass. Fever made him sweat despite the cold as he staggered forward. The outlaws had given up the day before, turning back when they had reached the pass without catching up to him. That threat was gone, but a more immediate one now dogged his every step.
He had to find shelter.
Instinct took over when reason failed, leading Vin back to the same small cabin where Dan had nursed him back to health years earlier.
Inside, Vin fumbled with lighting a fire, but the old, dry tinder caught easily and it caught. He added several pieces of wood, the flames quickly warming the small cabin. With shaking hands he positioned a pot of snow next to the fire to melt.
Going to the old trunk that still sat under Dan's cot, Vin brushed off the dust and opened it. A spare pair of pants and a shirt sat on the top.
He undressed slowly, then used the warmed water to wash his wounds. A small bottle of carbolic that Nathan had packed for them cleaned them out.
When he could stop shaking enough to stand, he dressed in the clothes he'd found and searched the cabin for food. Finding none, he finished off the last of his jerky, then lay down on the cot to sleep.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Vin blinked his eyes open, squinting into the silver-gray fog that had somehow found its way inside the cabin. He checked the fire, but it was still burning.
He wasn't cold, he realized, but the flames looked like they were far away, half-hidden behinds the thin veils of twisting mist that now surrounded him.
He sat up, noticing for the first time that he wasn't alone. Ol' Dan was sitting in his rocking chair, pushing with his toes to keep the hand-hewed seat rolling forward and back.
"It's 'bout time, boy," he said, using the same words from before. "I was startin' to think I was gonna have t' bury ya."
"I done tended ta your wounds. Used Indian med'sin. Learned it back when I could still afford me a squaw-wife."
Vin nervously glanced around. Something was wrong. Very, very wrong, but he couldn't seem to figure out what.
A howling wind thundered down the mountainside sounding like a runaway train. It hit the cabin, shaking the logs.
"Get out 'a here, woman!" Dan yelled. "He's under my roof, my protection."
"Who're y' talkin' to, Dan?" Tanner asked, wishing he could see the old man better. Could Dan still be alive?
"The mountain, boy. Like I done told you, she wants ta see ya dead."
"Why?" Vin asked, struggling to sit up. He moved stiffly off the cot and over to the fire, sitting on the floor in front of it, trying to get warm. But despite his closeness to the dancing flames he continued to shiver. "Why does the mountain want t' kill me, Dan?"
"Because I love you, Little Hawk."
Vin scampered around, coming up onto his knees and reaching for his absent Mare's Leg. He stared at the beautiful young women standing not far away. Dressed in pale-colored veils that reminded him of fall leaves, the mist was swirling around her legs and through her long, dark hair. She smiled at him, and her lips were as red as a summer sunset.
Dan stood. "Damn you, woman, get out 'a my house. You're not welcome here."
She looked at Dan, her long, black hair rippling like a river at night. "He's come back to me. He's mine."
"He ain't come back t' you," Dan argued.
She turned to look at Vin and the tracker noticed her eyes for the first time. They were as green as spring meadow grass. He stayed where he was, inching back closer to the fire in an attempt to force the ice from his bones.
She took a step closer to him, her snow-white skin making her almost invisible in the fog.
Dan stepped in front of her. "Ya stay away from him, woman, ya hear me? Ya can't have him."
"I have loved him forever," she said. "And now he has returned to me. I will take him home."
"He already has a home."
Vin looked up in surprise. "Four Corners?" he asked the new arrival.
Chris glanced down at him. "Tell her, Vin."
"Tell her what?" the tracker asked, wondering how Larabee had found him.
"Tell her you have a home now, with us."
Vin looked back at the woman, more confused than before.
"No," she said to him, "you are alone. In your heart, you are all alone. But I will love you forever, Little Hawk."
"He has friends who love him," JD said, his voice strong.
Her eyes flashed like a summer thunderstorm. "You cannot love him as I will. He will live with me forever."
"He's a man," Josiah argued with her. "He deserves a man's life. He deserves to live, and love, and die like a man."
"No, he is mine."
Nathan stepped up and offered Tanner his hand. Vin accepted it, allowing the healer to help him to his feet. "You have to choose, Vin," Nathan told him.
"Choose?" the tracker questioned, icy cold now, confused.
"Come with me, Little Hawk," the young women said. "I will love you forever. With me you will never be alone. We will watch over the seasons, the land, the living things. You belong with me."
Vin took a step toward the woman, drawn by her beauty and her promises.
"Vin, wait," Chris said. "If you go with her now, you'll never really know what it's like to have a family."
"We're your brothers," Buck added. "We need ya, Vin. You belong with us."
"We love you," JD added.
"And so do Mary and Inez, and Mrs. Potter. So do I," Chris told him.
Vin stopped, looking from the woman to the men he had accepted as his friends, his brothers.
"When you first came here," she said, "you were alone. You were dying. I led you to the trap, to the trapper. He kept you alive for me."
"I never stopped lovin' you, Vin."
The tracker turned slightly. "Mama?"
"I never stopped lovin' you, or your father," Elizabeth Tanner told her son. "If I could've lived longer, taken care 'a ya, I would've done it, sweet boy. You have to believe that."
"Mama," Vin said, reaching out to the pretty yellow-haired woman.
"No, Little Hawk, there is an emptiness in your soul that only I can fill," the dark-haired woman whispered.
"Only love can heal your heart, Vin, and your soul," Josiah countered. "And you are loved. You have a family now, son, a place of your own."
"A home, Mr. Tanner," Ezra added. "You must believe us. Please, Vin, come home."
Vin looked from the woman to his friends, his brothers. Yes, they were his family now – every one of them, but especially Chris.
"Little Hawk, you are mine."
Vin looked back at the woman. "I'm not Little Hawk any more," he said softly.
She cocked her head slightly. "Not?"
"I'm Vin Tanner. Little Hawk died when the Kiowa were killed 'n' they put me in that orphanage. The Comanche call me Long Eyes, but they's been killed, too. The only one left is Vin Tanner. That's who I's born, 'n' that's who I'll die."
She looked from Vin to Chris, then dipped her head. "He is your brother."
"Yes," Larabee agreed.
"He is loved?"
"Yes," the blond replied.
"He has a home?"
"Yes, with us," was Larabee's answer.
She looked back at Vin. "I will love you always… Little Hawk." The mist swirled in a rush that had Vin reeling, but then faded away.
Vin blinked and she was gone. He turned to ask Chris what was going on, but he and the others were gone as well. Only his mother and Dan remained, and they were fading away right before his eyes.
"Mama!" he called, his head swimming. He staggered back to the cot and lay down.
"You're a Tanner, son, don't ya ever forget that…"
Dan watched the woman disappear. "Son, y' know we can't stay. This fight is your's 'n' your's alone…"
Closing his eyes Vin heard Chris' voice inside his head. "Vin, it's time to come home…"
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
When he woke next, Vin sat up and glanced around the dusty old cabin. No Dan, no Chris, no mother, and no beautiful woman. He chuckled softly to himself and shook his head. It had all been a dream, just a dream.
I only wanted to love you, Little hawk, a soft, female voice whispered through his thoughts. I didn't want you to be alone, but you're not alone anymore… Vin Tanner.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Vin stood, looking out the dust-clouded window. The storm had passed, leaving a bright sun shining down on a winter wonderland. He smiled sadly. She would help him reach Clearview, he knew that now. And, once there, he could take the next train heading south. Heading home…
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Chris sat at his usual table in the saloon, a cup of coffee at his elbow, already long cold. Around him, life went on, men drinking, gambling… Out on the street fires blazed, casting the only light into the darkness beyond. That darkness hid the landscape from his probing gaze.
He stood and walked outside, leaning against the corner of the building and staring out into the darkness, waiting.
It was familiar, something Larabee had doing now for three weeks.
There was a certain untenable character to waiting, but Chris felt that he was getting closer to understanding its true nature.
He sighed heavily.
All had gone well in Clearview; their prisoners had been handed over for trial, just like they'd planned. Two of the four had been convicted and hung, the other two sent to prison for the rest of their lives. But once they had returned to Four Corners the sorrow had taken over, leaving the air around the six men feeling heavy and thick with unfinished grief.
There was nothing left for them to do but wait. If Vin didn't want to be found, they wouldn't find him – if he was even alive to be found…
Chris punched back the bleak thought like a failing boxer, only half-successfully. He had faith in his friend, but faith had its limits. He stared down at cheroot he held and frowned. Getting another match to light it would spoil the rhythm of his vigil. He slid the smoke back into his shirt pocket.
That done, he looked back out at the blackness and wondered, as he did all the time now, what Vin might be doing…
Could he see the moon, hanging like a thin hook of light among the stars? Without realizing it, Chris began to pray, but the words seemed hollow, and his thoughts quickly faltered into silence.
"Hey, Cowboy."
The older man turned around so quickly he nearly lost his balance. His breath caught in his throat. "Vin?"
"Sorry it took me so long…" Tanner's voice was saying, "had a little trouble findin' m' way home… but I got here… quick as I could… Didn't want ya t' worry none…"
Stepping around the corner of the saloon, Chris closed the space to reach Vin in three long strides. He took in the man's pale skin and the dark circles under his eyes in a single glance. He also noted the way Vin was hugging his arm to his side, and the deep hollow of his cheeks.
As he reached out and touched the tracker's arm, Vin's eyes slid closed and he folded silently forward.
Chris caught him easily and carried him to the boardwalk. "Nathan!" he hollered into the saloon.
A moment later the healer was there, the others on his heels.
"Get him up to the clinic," Nathan said, his voice catching.
Josiah stepped forward, taking Tanner from Chris, carrying him to the clinic and lying him down on the bed. Nathan was right behind him, issuing orders the others carried out as quickly as they could.
When the healer was done cleaning Tanner's wounds, he bound them and pulled a pair of blankets up to cover the man.
"He going to be all right?" Buck asked for the rest of them several minutes later.
"Think so," Nathan replied.
"All that's important is that you found your way home," Ezra said quietly, tugging the blankets up a little farther to cover Vin's shoulders.
Vin heard the gambler's words, but he was too tired to open his eyes.
"You're not alone anymore, Vin," he heard Josiah add.
And, for the first time, Vin believed him.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Vin sat in the middle of his bed, trying to look annoyed while Nathan and Ezra fussed over him. Across the room Buck and JD stood, the ladies' man's arms folded across his chest. "And just how long is this recovery goin' to take, Nathan?"
The healer grinned at him. "I'm not sure… a day, maybe two. Maybe three… or a week."
"A week?" Vin nearly wailed. "Hell, Nathan, I'm feelin' fine now."
"He's still pretty weak," the healer continued, ignoring the tracker completely.
"Like hell I am!"
"Weak in the head," Chris muttered, but his smile made it clear he wasn't really bothered. "For going off like that."
Vin glared up at the gunslinger. "How's yer leg?"
Chris shrugged. "Still a little tender, but that's all."
Vin nodded, trying not to smile. "Where's Josiah?"
"Prayin' for you in the church," JD told him.
Vin rolled his eyes.
"Now, don't you let Josiah catch you scoffing at the power of prayer," Nathan warned the tracker.
"Indeed," Ezra agreed. "Mr. Sanchez takes his praying very seriously."
Chris grinned. "He sure does."
"And now that they've been answered y'all c'n let me go back t' my wagon," Vin added.
"Nope," Nathan said. "I want to make sure those bites stay clean."
Vin sucked in a deep breath and flopped back against his pillows, trying hard to pout. It felt good to be home, even if they were determined to mother hen him to death. It might take some time before he was completely comfortable with his newfound family, but at least he knew was on the right trail.
The door opened and Josiah stepped in and cleared his throat. "I thought Nathan said Brother Vin needed his rest. You all are making enough racket up here to rise the dead."
Buck scowled, but he headed for the door, saying, "We were just bringing Vin his breakfast. Why, a body can't do anything right around here…"
JD leaned over and patted Vin's shoulder. "I'll come back for the tray in a little while, Vin."
"Thanks," Tanner replied.
JD grabbed Ezra's arm and dragged him out the door with him.
"Well, I'm going to go see how Mr. Wright's feeling," Nathan said. "He broke his foot the other day… I'll be back to check on you a little later, Vin." He looked to Josiah and Chris. "You two make sure he stays in that bed, y'hear?"
They both nodded dutifully.
Vin watched them go, shaking his head. He turned to Josiah and Chris. "All righty, now y' c'n help me find m' clothes."
"Nope," Chris said. "I think I'll go eat some breakfast, too. You handle him for a bit?"
"And then some," Josiah replied.
Vin looked flummoxed. "Chris?"
"You heard Nathan. You need to rest."
Chris walked to the door and paused there. "Welcome home, Vin."
Tanner nodded, not trusting his voice. Larabee left, closing the door behind him.
Josiah took a seat near the stove and Vin realized that he didn't feel alone anymore. He reached for his coffee, then attacked his breakfast, wondering when he dared to venture farther than his bed…