“A Face To The Reason”
Sunrise the next morning...
watched the goings on about town with a keen eye. After being verified of his position as a reporter from Denver, he decided to lay low
and keep his eyes on the seven, but from a distance.
With Standish wounded, they could have a perfect opportunity to
move without the seven being in full force, but...he had not received any word from his employer about that. They were supposed
to wait. Calder had yet to be retrieved from Red Rock.
Phelps could easily move forward by taking a few days to contact
his employer, but he felt any changes in the plans now would only result in catastrophe later. It was best to entertain patience
in order to make sure of no slip-ups. Phelps decided he might as well make the best of it.
He pulled out a notebook
and pencil and walked over to the jailhouse where JD sat outside whittling away at a stick of wood. “Good morning, Mister
JD glanced up at him only for a moment, then went back to whittling. “For some it is,” he
grumbled and turned to look down the street...towards the clinic.
Phelps followed his gaze. “Yes. I did hear
about that horrible shooting last night. How is Mister Standish?”
“Nathan says he’ll be fine if he
don’t come down with an infection. He’ll be weak, though. Lost a lot of blood.”
“Yes, of course
as many gunshot wounds do bring about such a drastic result. I was wondering if I might interview the shooter. Edward Pitch
is his name is it not?”
JD glared at Phelps. “This for your paper?”
Dunne, Indeed. It shouldn’t take more than a few minutes. Fifteen at the most.”
to get Mister Larabee’s instructions on that. It may be the Judge doesn’t want anyone to talk to Powder until
he’s had a chance to speak to him.”
“I see, yes. And when will the Judge Travis be arriving?”
this afternoon. If, after Travis says it’s all right, you can wait until then?”
Phelps pocketed his notebook
and pencil. “As you say, then, Mister Dunne.” He tipped his hat. “A good morning to you, sir.”
that he walked back to the hotel, only to see Josiah and Vin walking out of the nearby saloon and heading toward the clinic.
They met up with Chris and Buck.
Phelps studied them all carefully. It was indeed a shame he and the hunters could
not move on their plan today. But...the plan was made and they had to wait for Calder to be put into position. Besides, with
the shooting, Larabee would no doubt once again be put on his guard. They would have to wait...just a little longer.
had come later that day, and with Phelps in the background taking notes, the judge and Larabee shackled Powder and hauled
him out of the cell to stand trial. “It was self-defense!” Powder shouted to the onlookers who had gathered around.
“I swear! Standish pulled a gun, he did! I had to defend myself!”
“Witnesses report the contrary,
Mister Pitch,” Travis argued as they dragged Powder down the sidewalk. One guy walked by. “Standish is a decent
man, Powder!” he snarled. “Saved my ass one day during a misunderstanding in a poker game! You’ll be spending
some time in the pen for this one!”
With a howl of rage, Powder pushed Chris enough to cause the gunslinger to
turn his body, putting his gun within easy reach. Powder grabbed it and raised it to fire at Chris when a shot rang out and
Powder clutched his chest, dropping Chris’ colt to the boardwalk. Chris quickly turned to see Buck standing there, his
gun smoking, not yet lowered. “Damn fuck was going to shoot you, Chris. I had to fire.”
Travis and Chris
lowered Powder’s body to the boardwalk and Chris quickly picked up his gun. It had been cocked, ready to fire. He glanced
up at Buck. “Thanks,” he muttered.
Buck holstered his gun. He turned to Travis. “Do I need to do
“We all saw what happened, Buck. Damn cuss was looking for a way out. Probably would have taken
a few of us out with him. You did what you had to do.”
Vin and Josiah came running down the street with JD close
behind. They were immediately filled in on what happened.
Josiah went up to Buck, saw the look in the scoundrel’s
eyes as he studied Powder’s dead body. “Buck? You all right?”
“Bastard,” Buck sputtered.
“Miserable fuckin’ life and he wanted everyone else to pay for it.” He turned to Vin. “He was going
to kill Chris. I had to shoot him.”
Vin put a hand to Buck’s shoulder. “Thank ya’, Bucklin’...for
both of us.”
Buck couldn’t smile. His lips trembled. “If Travis needs me, I’ll be at the clinic.”
stiffly turned and headed down the road.
Josiah and Vin watched him carefully. “He’s shot men many times
because he’s had to, ‘Siah,” Vin said. “What makes this one so different?”
the man he shot and killed was the one who shot and almost killed someone he loves, Vin.”
Vin cast Josiah a surprised
glance. “You mean...Buck and Ezra...”
“It’s not for me to say for certain, Vin...but the only
other time I’ve seen that look in a man’s eyes was when you had been dragged through the street and Chris thought
he almost lost you.”
The two exchanged knowing glances. “I’ll keep it to myself,” Vin assured,
patting Josiah’s arm and then moving off to help Chris and Travis with Powder and the crowd.
Josiah stared after
Buck who was halfway to the clinic by now, head down, shoulders slumped. “God, don’t you dare let Ezra leave that
man. Not now.”
Ezra had awoken with the sound of the gunshot. “Buck,” he weakly called
out with a startled gasp.
Nathan was at his side. “Easy there, Ezra. You’ve had quite a battle.”
Buck’s gun go off...”
“I don’t know what happened. JD said he was going to find out and let
me know, but you’ve got to lay back and rest now. We can’t have those stitches rip open.”
a great sigh and lowered his head back to the pillow. “I need...to see Mister Wilmington.”
to the clinic window to see Buck walking their way. “He’s coming, Ezra. He should be here in a minute.”
when he turned to look at his patient, Ezra had fallen unconscious again.
The moment Buck walked through the door,
Nathan approached. “What happened? We heard the shot...”
“Powder grabbed Chris’ gun, was going
to shoot him. I had to take him down.”
Nathan stared at him. “You had to?”
at him. “Travis will verify. He saw it happen.”
“All right, Buck. I understand.”
wasn’t about revenge, Nate,” Buck explained. “Although,” he glanced over at Ezra, “if it had
opened up to me, I ain’t exactly sure I would have stepped away from that course.”
Nathan took in a deep
breath and let it out slowly. “That’s honest, Buck.”
Buck looked at him with eyes that carried the
weight of the world in them. “How is he?”
“No fever, no infection. I think he...literally...dodged
this bullet well enough to pull through.”
Nathan clapped him on the shoulder. “I’m going to go see
if I’m needed, but I don’t want to leave you alone. Ezra is no shape to fight should...”
don’t think we’re gonna need to worry about anything Calder and that Douglas fella is going to do right now, Nate. Tell JD
to get his butt back here if Chris still is uneasy about it, though, or Josiah.”
quietly closed the door behind him, leaving Buck to face Ezra alone again. He slowly walked up to the bed and sat down on
Ezra moaned and opened his eyes. “Buck?” he whispered.
Buck took his hand. “I’m
here, Ez. Still here.”
“Are you all right? I heard your gun...”
“It’s going to
be fine, Ezra. Just fine. Sleep now, Pard. I’ve got you covered.”
Ezra gripped Buck’s hand. “I’m
“No need to apologize. Powder won’t hurt us anymore. I swear it.”
a brow. “Sir, you didn’t...”
“No. He got Chris’ gun...I had no choice.”
sounded lost. He felt lost. Powder wouldn’t be talking, but had he mentioned what he knew about Buck and Ezra to others?
pulled Buck’s hand to his chest. “Sir, if you are willing to wait for me...I just need...time.”
leaned forward, resting his elbows on the side of the bed. He gripped Ezra’s pale hand hard, while at the same time
brushing the gambler’s light brown locks from his face. “Ezra, some men never find any sort of happiness out here
in this God-forsaken wasteland. If you need time to be sure...I ain’t about to say ‘no’.”
wearily smiled. “Then, Mister Wilmington...let us make sure”
Another firm squeeze of Buck’s hand
and Ezra closed his eyes and fell asleep again.
Buck couldn’t help it. He had to smile. Ezra wasn’t completely
walking away. He raised the gambler’s hand to his lips and kissed it. “Whatever you say, Ez,” he whispered.
“Nice and slow.”
Two weeks later...
Rain was coming. The storm clouds
littered the sky with dark gray, and very little sunshine could break through. The air smelled cold and wet. Chris tied his
horse up outside the saloon, his black duster billowing around his feet as he walked inside. He had finished his rounds for
the day and was ready for a shot of warm whiskey to kill the chill.
He checked his pocket watch to see how much longer
until he could meet up with Vin who was out giving JD his lessons in sharpshooting. It would be about another hour before
the lessons were done. Unless the rains hit first. His thoughts whirled as he reminisced about the night before. Damn Tracker
knew how to make the memories good and solid, and the warmth that flowed through him echoed out of him in the form of a small
He ordered a shot of whiskey. After drinking it down and asking for another, he felt the familiar, snaky presence
of Phelps come up from behind him. "Mister Larabee, may I ask where Mister Tanner is? He and I have an appointment regarding
his story of Mister Marcus, and he is running fifteen minutes late. With the shooting of Mister Standish, I was willing to
postpone interviewing him, but my editor is anxious to get this story published as soon as possible.”
takes precedence over interviews, Mister Phelps. That's his job, unless of course you'll be paying him for this story you
intend to write?"
"Well of course sir, he will be fairly compensated."
Chris grinned. "Vin don't care about
money. You portray Marcus fairly and that'll be compensation enough for him."
Phelps turned an empty gaze his way,
and suddenly Chris felt a cold inch its way into his heart that he never thought he would feel again, and it had nothing to
do with the weather.
"That may be fine for him, Mister Larabee, but not for me. I suggest you head out to your shack
and not mention anything to a soul if you want Mister Tanner to remain alive."
Chris froze midway of putting the second
shot of whiskey to his lips. "You bastard," he muttered. "I knew it!"
"Knowing is half the battle, as they say, but
in this case your knowledge confirmed comes too late. If you don't hurry, Calder may forget he's under my employ and do your
Mister Tanner severe harm. His whip looks extremely torturous."
Chris set the still-full shot of whiskey on the counter,
and casually turned to Phelps. "If Vin is hurt in anyway..."
"You are in no position to threaten me, Mister Larabee.
We have gunmen on all the people you care about in this town. We’ll finish what Mister Pitch started with Mister Standish.
His being so near death’s door, only a few weeks ago, he will be the first to fall. Mister Sanchez, Mister Jackson,
and your good friend Mister Wilmington. Also, Calder likes young boys...a lot. He may go after JD when he's finished with
“Where is Dunne?” Chris snarled. “He was with Tanner.”
completely fine for the moment, as long as you do exactly as I say. We waited to grab Tanner once he and Dunne were separated.
Our employer does not want anyone needlessly butchered in this mission he’s assigned us to.”
his jaw, but did not give in to his impulse to slug Phelps then and there. Not if Vin's life was depending on him to maintain
control of his temper.
"There, you see? You can exercise some restraint if appropriately motivated. I suggest you
hurry, Mister Larabee. Calder has been told to maintain control of his urges at least until," he checked his pocket watch.
"You have ten minutes, Mister Larabee. And if you mention this to anyone in this town, Vin Tanner will die. I have a precise
message system put in place. One signal from me, and Calder will rip Mister Tanner to shreds until he's dead. So, I advise
you to not allow anyone to suspect something is wrong. You'll ride out of here at a slow walk until out of eyeshot of your
friends. Then, you are free to travel as fast as you desire. One hint of problems..." Phelps inconspicuously made the sound
of a whip cracking.
Chris tossed a coin on the counter.
"Good man. Now, smile at me as though I've been pleasant.
Tip your hat and slowly head out to your horse. You take him to the livery as though you are bedding him down. Then, you will
mount, leave from the back of the livery and hurry to your shack. If you do not do exactly as I instruct, I will give the
signal that will tell Calder you are uncooperative, and Mister Tanner will pay the price of your rebellious streak. Am I perfectly
clear, Mister Larabee?"
Chris forced a grin to his face and tipped his hat. "Perfectly, Mister Phelps."
cast him a cold smile. "Excellent. Pleasant ride, Mister Larabee."
Chris turned and slowly walked out of the saloon,
his steps purposeful and methodical. Buck and Josiah were across the street at the Jailhouse. He kept his attention from them,
hoping they would not see and try to stop him from what he had to do. He untied his horse and started walking to the livery.
He forced his steps to slow, even though adrenalin pumped through his limbs. He wanted to give in to his desire to mount his
horse here and ride out of town without a backward glance, but he knew if he made one move outside of Phelps’ instructions,
Vin could quite possibly be dead before he reached the shack.
As he walked past Buck, he noticed the laughing face,
the roar of Buck’s laughter hit his ears. Such a nice change from the worried scowls of the last two weeks. Where was
JD? Why wasn’t the Kid anywhere near his best friend? His only hope was that Phelps had spoken the truth when he said
JD had not been taken. But what if Phelps had been lying? What if...
Chris shut his eyes for a moment, willing his
heart to beat as normally as it could. He had no idea what was happening, only what Phelps told him. He had to play it their
way for now. He had no choice. Once he knew Vin and JD were all right, he would figure out a way to get all of them out of
this alive. But for right now he had to do what he had to do. He turned his eyes upward and saw the riflemen in place. One
wrong move and it would be all over.
Phelps was too smart a man to be bluffing. And Chris couldn't take the chance
that he was.
He entered the livery and turned to mount his horse, when he felt the presence behind him too late. His
eyes saw stars as the butt of the gun smashed into his head. He never felt the impact of the ground after he fell.
watched carefully from the boardwalk outside the saloon. He then checked his watch, and smiled. He prided himself for keeping
on schedule, and so far things were going according to plan.
...To set up the stage for Mister Tanner's
"Mister Marcus," he whispered to the air, "I wonder how proud you will be of your student when he
is forced to perform a scene entitled 'the living death'?"
Vin and JD walked their horses over to the
jailhouse where Buck and Josiah were busy playing cards on a makeshift table made out of a crate and burlap sack.
Buck said, eyeing Josiah with a careful gaze.
Josiah grinned. "Go fish."
Buck slapped down his cards. "Dagnabit!
You’re about as bad as Ezra!"
"Hey, boys," Vin said as he tied Peso up to the hitching rail. "Y'all seen Chris
Josiah glanced over at the livery down the street. "Saw him head over there a while ago. He’s probably
giving Pony a good brushing down. Been in there for some time."
Vin nodded, then clapped JD on the back. "Tell 'em
the good news, Kid, ya' deserve to toot your horn."
"I hit the target dead on, Buck!" JD grinned. "Five times in a
row! Vin's a damn good teacher. Next is a movin' target."
"Way to go, Kid," Buck chortled as he patted JD on the back.
"Knew ya' could do it."
Vin headed off down the street for the livery, smiling and shaking his head.
The kid had
done some good shooting that day. He was on his way to developing the finer skills of a marksman.
The Texas Rangers would one day be
proud to have JD Dunne on their payroll.
But as Vin entered the livery, thoughts of JD left his mind when he noticed
immediately that something was wrong.
A feeling in his gut. Chris' horse was gone but his hat wasn't. It hung from
a rafter like some calling card with blood dripping down from the brim.
He heard the softly padded footfall of a man
coming up from behind. He started to turn, but the cold steel of a revolver froze him in place.
Tanner. I believe you're looking for your...well, 'whore' is perhaps the correct term for the sinful relations between two
men, but then no other word can describe what you and Mister Larabee share, can it?"
Vin's heart pounded, but he recognized
the voice. "Phelps."
"Yes. My employer is very thorough in his plans. I kept him abreast of all that was happening
here regarding you. Especially your new-found physical union with Chris Larabee."
"Bastard!" Vin seethed.
now, you're hardly in a position to call anyone names, being that you yourself are a deviant of God's own proclamation for
"What do you want? Where's Chris?"
"Mister Larabee will not be harmed, I assure you. He's at
his shack...with Calder."
"Yes, Mister Tanner. Roy Calder is keeping a close watch over your whore
until you arrive. If you want to see Larabee alive, you'll do exactly as I say. Is that understood?"
Vin nodded once,
but bit his tongue to keep from saying anything. He could not trust himself to keep from speaking the wrong thing at the wrong
"Very good. Now, as it stands my associates are all over this town, keeping a close eye on all your friends.
Even the young one. JD is it?"
Vin kept perfectly still, though inside he was shaking with controlled anger and fear.
wrong move, one...oh, shall we say...deviation...from my instructions and they will all get bullets between their eyes. A
Sharps .50 can do a lot of damage."
Vin closed his eyes. "The buffalo hunters. We was right about them."
you were, but being right then, and being right at this moment are two very different things, aren't they, Mister Tanner?"
Phelps reached around and pulled Vin's Mare's Leg from his holster. He tossed it aside into one
of the stalls. "Head out through the back of the livery to Mister Larabee's shack. You have exactly ten minutes to get there
before Calder decides you are not going to show, and he has his way with your...friend. Lead out quietly, make no fuss. Do
not signal to anyone, or I shall signal to my men and your friends will all be killed. Is that understood?"
I ain't stupid," Vin chided.
"I'll advise you to keep that wandering mouth well closed for the time being, Mister Tanner,
or I'll have Calder rip into your lover's back with his whip simply for the hell of it...while you watch."
"Good. Mount up, Mister Tanner. The clock is ticking."
Vin quickly mounted Peso and hurried the
horse out the back of the livery where no one would see him leave, and no one would know where to look.
He planned it down to the damn second.
Once he was free of the town, he spurred Peso into a gallop and rode the air
towards Chris' shack.
He hoped against hope that he would get there in time, but with Calder in the mix, the fear that
he wouldn't drove a nail of aching dread into Vin's heart.
Chris moaned. He felt as though a brick had
hit his head, and the disorientation that followed his waking into consciousness made him grateful he was lying down.
was he lying down?
The surface beneath his body felt stiff and cold.
He opened his eyes, his
awareness focusing a little more, and he saw a face he could not place...at least not at first. The laughter that flowed over
him was the same laughter he had stored in his memory the day Vin had been dragged.
back, Larabee. Thought the boys had hit you too hard there for a minute. Was wondering if you would wake up in time for the
Chris tried to move, but found he had been bound and gagged. His hands tied behind him, his knees and ankles
bound together. A kerchief covered his mouth, pulled tight enough to cause his jaw pain.
He forced his brain to focus
on the face hovering over him. It started to become clearer, but the effects of the blow still lingered.
"Yup. We had
to drug poor Yosemite at the livery, put him
away until we could get you and Vin free and clear from the others. He'll live, but he'll have a terrible headache when he
wakes up. Boss man don't want no killin'. Too bad. I would enjoy ripping your flesh apart. Tanner's, too, but...I've done
him already. I need fresh blood."
The hideous chuckle ripped through Chris' skin down to his nerves and made his anger
boil, which was a good thing in all reality. The anger helped him focus more rapidly. Soon the image of Calder was as clear
as day, and the man looked like every nightmare Vin had been carrying inside of him all of his young life.
of fear tore through Chris, but he forced it down. Right now, Calder held the cards...all of them. Josiah had been right in
that apt analogy. There was no bluffing their way out of this one. The ante was too high.
Calder went to the window
by the door, and Chris then realized he was inside his shack. Two other gunmen were standing by the windows, watching both
"Vin should be showin' up here soon. Ready to save his...what are you to him, anyway, Larabee? His friend?
His best friend? His...whore?" Calder began to chortle with amusement. "Oh, yeah, we know all about you and Vin, Larabee.
Phelps heard you and Wilmington talkin’ that day. Wrote it all down and sent the report to our boss man. We got strict instructions
to keep you both alive for the time being. But," Calder grabbed his crotch and squeezed it with a moan. "He didn't say anythin'
about havin' no fun before hand."
Chris glared at him.
Calder laughed. "Shall I do Vin again? I think that would
be so fun, don't you, Larabee? Do him right in front of you, and you won't be able to do anythin' about it."
did not shut his eyes, though he wanted to. His suspicions had just been confirmed. The bastard had raped Vin the night Calder
had taken the whip to Vin's back. No wonder Vin had suffered that nightmare on the night he had been dragged.
had suspected. Damn it! He had known it in his gut! He felt sick to his stomach, and not just from the blow to his head.
sound of a horse's hoofs hitting the ground filled the air and Calder tensed.
"Here he comes, boys. If Phelps did
his job, Tanner'll be unarmed, and more damned concerned about Larabee's safety than his own."
He went over to Chris
and lifted him to his feet, holding him around the waist.
"You're gonna be the ace we play, now, Larabee." He dragged
Chris to the door and opened it, putting a gun to Chris' head. "Struggle, even once, Larabee and the bullet won't be for you...it'll
go through Tanner and not to kill him either."
Chris remained perfectly still.
He watched in horror as Vin
rode up and dismounted, glaring at Calder with an anger that Chris had seen quite a few times in the last few years. The last
time only two weeks before in the jailhouse when Vin had confronted Phelps about how the reporter planned to honor Marcus’
"Let him go, Calder. It's me ya' want," Vin's voice was determined.
Chris stared at him as Calder held
his head by the hair. He couldn't move. He couldn't stop what was happening.
Calder smiled. "Actually, it's both of
ya' boys. But we got plans that can't be changed. Boss man wants this done right."
Two other gunmen, the two buffalo
hunters from the saloon, stepped out onto the porch and aimed their guns at Vin. The Sharps .50 would rip him apart at this
"What do ya' want, then?" Vin asked, his voice low with choked back fear.
"Strip down, Tanner. Now."
tried to struggle, knowing what Calder was going to do, but Calder tightened his hold on his hair. "What did I say, Larabee?
I meant it!"
Chris stilled, his breathing labored and full of fear.
Vin took off his coat and threw it down,
hoping that his journal would remain hidden in the inside pocket. He took off his suspenders and pulled off his shirt and
kerchief, throwing them to the side.
Calder watched Vin with a hungry look. "That's right, Tanner. Show us what Larabee
finds so damn appealing about you."
Vin started to undo his britches when Calder handed Chris over to one of the hunters.
"Hold onto him for me, boys. If he struggles, shoot Tanner in the shoulder. Got that?"
"Got it, Calder," the one holding
the rifle said, aiming it at Vin while the other one grabbed hold of Chris.
Calder smiled at Chris. "That gun will
rip Vin's arm off, Larabee. Just a friendly word of warning." He then walked over to where Vin stood and unfurled his whip.
stilled his movements.
Calder cracked the whip at Vin's feet. "Did I tell you to stop, Tanner?"
Vin glared at
him, his anger overcoming his fear. "You've had me before, Calder. I can't be that much of a challenge to ya' now."
ain't the challenge I'm after, Tanner. It's the entertainment from watching your lover being unable to stop this from happening.
Now, finish stripping down and get on your hands and knees."
Vin quietly obeyed.
He did not look at Chris; would
not look at him. He refused to make any eye contact with his soul in that moment.
Chris would be forced to watch, but
Vin would not allow the watching to be any more torturous than it had to be.
He would not look at Chris as Calder did
what he planned to do.
He got on his hands and knees and lowered his head, bracing for the whip.
lash landed, and Vin stifled back a cry of pain as the sting of the cutting instrument tore into his flesh.
Chris screamed for him.
Bound, he was unable to fight back.
Gagged, he was unable to voice his
protests, except for muffled screams behind the cloth.
He struggled, pulling against the ropes that cut into his wrists,
drawing blood. The sting of the raw skin filtered through his clouded brain, but Chris Larabee did not focus on it. He could
only watch in horror as Vin’s beaten and bruised body was taken again and again by a man that Chris had sworn would
be killed if their paths ever crossed. But Chris could not keep that promise. Not now.
He felt the tears burn his
eyes as he watched Vin being mercilessly abused. The helplessness to fend off the sadistic creature damaging his lover sent
Chris into a hell never before realized. And when Vin collapsed under the strain, his breath coming in ragged gasps as shock
set in, Chris could do nothing but cry out his impotent fury, made so by his inability to take back any control.
laughed like some demon from the hell Chris had spawned somewhere in his past. Why was this happening? Calder’s connection
to Vin was clear, but how that connection flowed to Chris was the unanswered question. Who was behind this…and why?
above, thunder crashed and gray clouds thickened, signaling the promised storm was almost ready to burst forth. Chris heard
the tap-tap-tap of raindrops as they began to fall onto the dusty ground.
Calder stopped his assault on Vin’s
body and searched the sky. He pulled up his pants and buttoned them closed.
Vin lied on his side, his face to Chris,
but those normally expressive, round blue eyes were now distant and unfocused.
Chris pulled himself from the arms that
held him and fell to the ground, hoping Vin would see him, somehow. See him and know that his lover was with him, even if
not within physical contact.
Their eyes locked and Chris saw a flicker of recognition blaze behind the tormented,
It was something.
It was everything.
God, Vin, I love you.
He hoped his eyes
could convey to the tracker his sorrow, his anger, his fear…his heart.
Vin forced a smile, a slight curve of
his lips, and a knowing between them solidified their bond. Chris knew, then, that nothing Calder did would shake them apart.
wasn’t Vin’s life that Chris feared for. Calder himself had said that his employer did not want anyone killed.
This was meant to kill both of their souls. First Vin’s, then on the heels of that precious death, Chris would follow.
His own pain was the desired result of what was happening now.
But whoever hired Calder and those other men did not
know…could not know how deeply bonded he and Vin were to each other.
Vin’s slight smile in that moment
gave Chris hope that he and his tracker would get through this storm.
Whatever happened in the minutes ahead, they
knew it would not matter.
Even if death did come to claim them that day…they would never be separated.
the small curve of the lips and hint of recognition in the eyes, Vin had said that he loved Chris, too.
Calder looked down to see his captives gazing at each other and knew that he had lost whatever foothold
he had gained.
He roughly pulled Vin to his feet and backhanded him across the face.
Vin sprawled to the ground
and Chris saw the lash marks, the bleeding cuts on that beautiful back, mixing with the rain now released from the clouds,
forming streams of blood onto the ground.
Calder laughed. “That’s right, Larabee, take a good look! That’s
my handiwork and you can never have Tanner again without seeing that I had him as well. My mark will always be on his hide,
on his soul…haunting both of you until you die.”
Chris lashed out with his feet and caught Calder behind
the legs, knocking him to the ground just as the lightning flashed and the thunder rolled.
Calder got to his feet
with furious anger over Chris’ blatant attempt to humiliate him. “Oh, I’m gonna enjoy this, Larabee. I’m
gonna enjoy this.” He chuckled with such evil that Chris swore the man’s mouth was the entrance to hell.
clutched Vin’s hair and pulled him up. Vin gasped and painfully pushed himself to his feet. “You and I are gonna
have so much fun, Tanner.” He pulled Vin over to his horse and bound the trembling hands. Chris saw the pale skin and
shaking limbs of his lover, and knew that Vin was going into shock.
Chris rolled onto his knees, uncaring about the
mud soaking his pants. He screamed out, fearing what Calder would do next.
Calder grinned at him. “You’re
whore and I are gonna head off now. We’s got us an appointment to keep. My bossman wants to meet Tanner, here. He wants
to get to know Tanner real good.”
Calder turned to Vin. “Get on the horse, Tanner. Or I’ll cause
Larabee to die very slowly.”
Vin clumsily reached for the saddle horn and put his bare foot into a stirrup. Chris
could tell that the effort to move was impeded by the pain, but Vin called on what strength he had left to get him up onto
the saddle. Calder took a blanket off his saddle and mounted up behind Vin, wrapping the cold and naked body with it. “Can’t
let him get too cold in this weather can we?” he chuckled, but there was no real concern in the words. It was all for
Calder turned to his cohorts. “Boys, take care of him. We gotta head out.”
Chris watched in
horror, with fear rolling over him like a crashing landslide. They were going to take Vin and leave him behind! Then he sensed
the two others behind him. He started to turn when he felt the butt end of a gun smash into his head.
He never heard
Calder’s laugh split the air like a hideous siren’s call.
The clouds darkened overhead and
the distant roll of thunder split the sky with its ominous heraldic decree of a vicious storm.
Josiah watched as the
lightning flashed across the gray clouds, like angels at play signaling their location with a flick of their glorious smiles.
the feeling burrowing into his spirit was nothing so joyous. In fact the storm, though in the air all morning, had indeed
come upon them like a flurry of bats executing perfect choreography of their dragon-like wings.
This storm was unwelcome,
and not just because of the miserable rain. The air was cloaked in a freezing cold. Wet on top of cold meant misery.
there was more to this storm than just the physical discomfort it would bring. In spite of the chill, there was an even more
freezing chill encroaching up Josiah’s spine, signaling danger.
Josiah slowly stood, his attention no longer
focused on the card game of Fish between he and Buck. Why did he turn to look down at the livery?
Buck and JD watched
him, both curious as to his sudden reaction. “What is it, ‘Siah? You look like you’ve seen a ghost,”
“It’s been over an hour,” Josiah said, calmly but a touch of fear laced the low voice.
“Any of you seen Chris or Vin since Vin went to the livery?”
Buck and JD looked at each other. The mustached
man swallowed. “Why am I shivering from the inside rather than from the outside?”
JD paled. “Josiah,
Josiah hurried off the porch and started for the livery. “Bad feelin’,” was all
he said. “Shit, we left them alone! We dropped our damn guard!”
Buck and JD knew not to argue with the
preacher when his instincts were in full swing.
And when they got to the livery…what they saw made them all dig
their boots into the forming mud.
Chris’ hat hung on a hook from one of the rafters and a moan was heard.
followed the moan to a far stall and found Yosemite crawling on his hands and knees looking for all intents and purposes like
a man who had gone a few rounds with a bottle.
Josiah and Buck helped the livery owner to his feet. “What happened?”
came the slurred question of a man disoriented. But Yosemite had never gotten drunk while on the job.
“We were gonna ask you the same
question,” Buck spoke sternly. “What the hell you doin’ gettin’ drunk?”
had a drink all day, some water…that’s all. Tasted nasty.” Josiah went to the water pail by the door that
Yosemite gestured to. He lifted
a dipperful and took a whiff. He looked at Buck. “Drugged,” he said, tipping the pail over and letting the tainted
liquid soak into the ground.
JD swallowed as he walked up to Chris’ hat and pulled it from the hook. “Buck?”
turned to him. “What is it?”
Buck walked up and took the hat. He examined
it carefully. “Blood,” he confirmed.
Josiah clenched his fists. “Chris and Vin’s horses are
gone.” Josiah headed out of the livery, throwing the dipper to the ground in a disgusted fury.
gonna start lookin’, Siah?” Buck asked, as he followed after the bigger man, clutching Chris’ hat in his
“Chris’ shack, or Shepherd’s Rock. One of the two. The only two places I know that mean anything
“What’s goin’ on?” Yosemite called after them, rubbing the back of his neck
and trying hard to keep standing.
“Something not good,” Josiah replied. He turned to Buck. “JD, call
Nathan. Buck you see to Ezra.”
JD hurried towards the clinic, his face pale, and his mouth dry as the dessert,
in spite of the rain that began to pour over them.
“God, not now!” Josiah pled, gazing out at the storm
and the rain that smashed into the ground, knowing full well any leads would be washed away in the downpour.
to the hotel where Ezra had been staying to mend his wound. No doubt he would not be able to ride, but Buck knew that the
gambler would not forgive him if he had not been given the choice.
He found Ezra seated at a poker table in the middle
of a hand. Upon drawing closer Ezra stopped his bid mid sentence when he saw the agitated look in Buck’s eyes. “Sir,
what is the problem? You look as pale as a sheet.”
“Chris and Vin...Calder. It’s happened.”
Lord.” Ezra folded his hand. “Gentlemen, I dare say I must withdraw.” He quickly pocketed what earnings
he had and put on his hat. He followed Buck out to where their horses were hitched. “Ezra, you shouldn’t ride.
You ain’t healed up enough, yet.”
“You were on a horse the day after almost being sliced in two by
a saber, Mister Wilmington. It’s been two weeks. My insides are healed up enough to ride to Mister Larabee’s shack.
Now please, sir, we cannot waste time arguing about this!”
“You’ll have to ride with me, then. Your
horse isn’t tacked.”
Ezra looked at the gray and nodded. “Front or back, how do you want me?”
appalling. I shall ride in back of you. I’m not some helpless woman in a skirt.”
“Fine. Back, but
the minute you start to slide off the saddle, Ez, you’ll be going in the front where I can keep you upright.”
Buck helped Ezra into his saddle and mounted in front of him, Josiah rode up with JD and Nathan.
“JD and Nathan
will head out to the shack,” Josiah instructed. “Buck, you, Ezra and I will head out to Shepherd’s Rock.
We meet on the road in the middle. Look everywhere, boys. Everywhere.”
“Ezra, you think you can ride all
the way out there?”
“I have Mister Wilmington’s assurance he will not allow me to slide off the saddle,
Mister Jackson. Not to mention my sheer determination to remain seated. I shall be fine.”
Josiah nodded. “Let’s
The five headed out of town at a full gallop, ignoring the rainstorm that pelted their bodies, ignoring
the chill that stole their heat.
They all pushed back the fear that threatened to paralyze them into non-action.
clenched his reins as did Buck.
No one spoke. No one dared voice their fears.
Above them the lightning and
The swimming feel of darkened water encompassed him, and he fought to reach the surface.
His head ached, his body ached. But he was warm.
Hadn’t it been raining a few minutes ago?
image filled his mind, an image of him naked and being torn apart by both man and whip. An image of his smiling eyes, even
in the midst of terror and pain. Rain had fallen. Night had fallen, even in the clouded-over sunlight. Night had fallen. Darkness.
Vin had shown fear, but he had kept it controlled. Whether out of will or shock…or both…he had controlled the
fear that seeped out of his body in the form of shaking limbs, trembling lips and pale skin. Vin had been scared, but would
not give into the fear. Not this time. Not with Chris so close by to watch.
Vin had been terrified in front of
On the night of his dragging, the night of his darkened past haunting him.
Calder had raped him
once, and now he had raped him again.
Chris jerked away with a choking cry of anguish.
Hands on his shoulders,
voices surrounding him. “Easy, Chris, easy. You’re safe now.”
Chris felt a thickness in his throat.
“Vin,” he whispered. “Vin…where is he?”
Chris looked up into the eyes of his oldest friend.
“Vin!” He sat up and grabbed Buck’s shirt. “Where is he?” he shouted.
gone, Pard. Vin’s gone,” Buck replied, sadly, his eyes reflecting the remorse that tore through his body. “We
got here too late. Don’t know which direction to travel. Rain washed away the tracks. We split up and searched, but
saw no sign. Nothing to help us find a trail.”
Chris turned to see the faces of his other friends gathered around
him. They were still at his shack. He was in bed. He gazed at the blood seeping through the bandages around his wrists. “They…tied
me,” he spoke out in a daze. “Forced me to…” he shut his eyes. “Calder…whipped him in
front of me. Whipped him, his back…”
Buck rested a hand on Chris’ shoulder. “Pard, don’t
“Oh my God.” Chris’ body visibly trembled under the assault of memory.
shakily sat up and ran quivering fingers through his hair, ignoring the painful lump that rested above his ear. Damn bastards
knew how to hit hard enough to give them time to get away, but not hard enough to damage him too badly. No, they wanted him
alive…their employer wanted him alive.
Chris searched through the drawer to his nightstand and pulled
out a bottle of whiskey and a glass he kept there.
“Chris, now, you don’t want to go puttin’ no
liquor into your body just yet,” Nathan cautioned. “You got a blow to the head that put you out for at least a
few hours,” Nathan instructed.
“Shut up, Nathan,” Chris muttered, and began to pour. His hand shook
so badly that the glass toppled over. Chris took his free hand and angrily swiped the glass across the room. He grabbed the
bottle of whiskey by the neck and chugged a few swallows, pushing himself to his feet.
The dizziness that took hold
did not keep him down. He took a moment to gain his balance, and then glanced around at the faces staring at him. He gently
fingered the bandage around his head. His hand came away with blood staining his fingers. “How long have I been out?”
“Don’t know. We found you about two hours ago,” Buck replied.
Chris went to a window
and looked out at the darkened sky. The rain had stopped, but the clouds still hovered like a curtain, shutting out the sun.
“What time is it?” he asked.
Ezra took out his watch and glanced at the face. “Close to half past
three,” he said. He was pale and weary from lack of strength, but he remained standing, holding onto the back of one
of Chris’ chairs to do so. Buck went to his side and eased an arm behind him, in case Ezra’s knees wanted to give
out. Damn stubborn gambler. Shouldn’t have ridden out here in his condition.
Chris noticed him in that
moment. “Ezra,” he whispered. “You shouldn’t be here. The ride...you look as though you’re going
to pass out.”
“I’m fine, sir. Fine.”
Chris just looked at him. Ezra. Determined to help,
even in his current condition. Tanner didn’t just worm his way into Chris’ heart that was for damn sure.
few hours till sunset.” Chris muttered and set the bottle down on a nearby table. He looked around for his boots. Finding
them under the bed he sat down and pulled them on.
“Where the heck do you think you’re going?” Buck
“I’m going to find him.”
“Not in this weather you ain’t, not in your condition,”
“I’m going to go find him!” Chris firmly spoke, ignoring the bolt of pain shooting
through his head at the force behind his voice. He stood up. “Where are my guns?”
to reason now,” Josiah said.
“You listen! All of you! That bastard Calder whipped Vin right in front of
me and I couldn’t do anything about it! They rode off with him and made it so I wouldn’t know what direction they
“Then how the hell are you going to find him?” Buck shouted. “The rain washed away their
Chris glared at him. “I’m going after them. I’ll find some trace. If I have to travel
over this entire goddamned country, I’ll find Vin. I won’t rest until I find him!”
JD came walking
over, and handed Chris Vin’s coat and hat...his clothes. Chris stared into JD’s face. The young man was standing
before him, alive, unharmed and for that he was grateful, but damn it all...they had let their guard down. A few moments of
peace and now this as a result. The patience of the ones who planned this had paid off. “JD?” he asked.
swallowed, “Found Vin’s clothes outside. I think the journal is still inside a pocket. Don’t know if it’s
damaged. Couldn’t bring myself to look. Thought you may want to do that by yourself. We also found Peso. We put him
up in your barn, next to Pony. Didn’t know what else to do. Fed them both, brushed them down. Vin’s gun...don’t
know where it is, wasn’t in his holster.”
Chris turned to Buck. “Find Phelps. Sonovabitch planned
this whole thing. Got me out here thinking Vin was being held by Calder. Got Vin out here by having him thinking Calder had
me. Damned bastard. Find him if you can and bring him to me. I don’t care if you have to hogtie him and drape him over
a damn horse. He and I are gonna talk.”
“Chris,” JD spoke softly. “Phelps is gone. Have no
idea where he is. We looked. Just in case. When we didn’t see him in town, after we discovered you and Vin missing...we
searched everywhere for him. He checked out of the hotel and just...he’s gone.”
Chris stared at the items
of clothing in JD’s shaking hands. The kid was as pale as snow, scared as hell and unwilling to admit it.
gently took the clothes and tossed them on the bed, all except for the coat. He felt around for the hard square-shaped book
inside one of the pockets. He removed it and gazed in solemn reverence at the binding. Opening the cover his eyes glanced
over the words written from Vin’s purposeful hand. Misspelled words with letters askew…it looked like the entries
had been written by a child. But damn if Vin had not written inside the pages. And now the words were calling out to Chris
over the span of weeks and distance. A quick look showed entries of both Marcus and Chris’ names. Chris shut the cover
and held the book close to his heart. “Get out. All of you.”
No words of protest were voiced. No queries
of concern, no looks of caution. The others filed out of the small room at the back of Chris’ shack and out onto the
Chris watched them leave, and he gazed out the window to the road leading both from and toward town. Where the
front of his property met the road, Chris would head left and keep going. It was the only way those men could have ridden
out. That direction alone was Chris’ only lead. And somehow he knew once he headed down that stretch, then everything
about this place would no longer be his home.
His fingers clutched at the book in his hands as cold fear and dread
clutched at his heart.
“Vin,” he whispered. He had no idea who was behind this, or why they were doing
this. He only knew one thing...he had to search. He had to try to find anyone who could tell him anything about what happened.
He would not sit by and allow them to run this show anymore. This time…Chris would call the shots.
coming for you,” he said, his voice hollow, his gaze unfocused. “I won’t rest until I find you.”
stuck Vin’s journal inside his shirt and clutched the coat tightly in his hands. Vin would need his coat once found.
Damn bastard should have let Vin keep his coat. Doesn’t he know that Vin hates being cold?
of thunder was heard. More rain coming.
Chris shut his eyes.
January was a damn cold month.
heat from the fire felt good to his naked body as he sat on the cushioned chair. His wrists were bound to the arms of the
chair, and his ankles were bound to the two front legs. He was blindfolded, but not gagged.
His back ached with the
sting of the whiplashes, but he felt bandages had been applied and some healing salve had diminished the pain to a great extent.
mind was numb to the effects, though. His mind swirled in a fog. He should be feeling something other than comfort. He had
been taken…in front of Chris. Why was his body uncaring?
Why was he floating in a sea of calm?
opened behind him. He turned his head to the sound. “Who’s there?” he asked, and his voice sounded slow,
dragging. It was an effort to get the words out.
“Time for more medicine, Mister Tanner. We’re sorry Calder
did not practice more restraint. We did not wish you to be beaten. My employer has informed Calder of his error and has taken
the proper action against him. Still, you are in need of medicine. I have been instructed to minister to you.”
knew that voice, from somewhere in his memory. Clouded, but familiar. “Phelps?”
“Very good, Mister
Tanner. You’re hearing is still sharp. I am very impressed.”
Vin felt a hand on his, gripping it, pushing
it down. He struggled. “What are you…”
A sting pierced the top of his hand. “My employer has
been very patient, Mister Tanner. Now it is time for you to become patient.”
Vin felt a warmth flow into his
arm, through his body.
His head lolled forward.
“That is good, Mister Tanner. The medicine will take
the sting out of your back, and the ache out of your heart.”
“Where…where’s Chris?” Vin
mumbled as the medicine pushed him into drowsiness.
“He is alive. I made sure of that before returning here.”
do you want…with me?” Vin asked, his head rolling back.
“You, Mister Tanner…are going to deliver
a message to Mister Larabee.”
“What…what message?” Even to Vin his voice sounded even further
away than a few minutes before.
“A very simple message, Mister Tanner: Douglas says ‘hello’.”
The last word
echoed in Vin’s ears as though from someplace far away in his mind.
He found that funny and grinned. “Chris,”
he slurred. “Where is Chris?”
There was no answer as the door opened and closed again.
Vin was alone.
Naked, bound and alone, but in that moment…he didn’t care.
His mind drifted off into dreams. Nice dreams.
Images of Chris filtered in and out like waves.
“Sleep, Chris,” he moaned. “I’ll sleep now.”
lowered his head and fell into the beckoning hands of a world he never knew existed before. It was a world where nothing mattered
and everything flowed into one.
In that moment, Vin’s soul fell into sleep. And somehow, though for some reason
it didn’t matter to him, he knew he would never be allowed to wake up.
(To Be Continued in Book Three:
Break of Day To Tide Of Night, Did You Ever Ride The White?”)
Please click here for next installment - parts 12-13