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"A Face To The Reason" Prologue (Slash - Chris/Vin, Buck/Ezra)
"A Face To The Reason" Parts 1-2 (Slash C/V and B/E)
"A Face To The Reason" Parts 3-4 (Slash C/V and B/E)
"A Face To The Reason" Parts 5-6 (Slash C/V and B/E)
"A Face To The Reason" Parts 7-8 (Slash C/V and B/E)
"A Face To The Reason" Parts 9-11 (Slash C/V and B/E)
"A Face To The Reason" Parts 12-13 (Slash C/V and B/E)
"A Face To The Reason" Parts 14-16 (Slash C/V and B/E)
"A Face To The Reason" Parts 17-19 (Slash C/V and B/E)
"A Face To The Reason" Parts 20-22 (Slash C/V and B/E)
"A Face To The Reason" Epilogue (Slash C/V and B/E)

Enter subhead content here

"A Face To The Reason" Book 3 - "From Break Of Day To Tide Of Night, Did You Ever Ride The White?"
(From “Ride the White” by JC Robnett 2005 - JC Robnett)

 

By: Myristica

myristica63@gmail.com

 

"All my words, all my words, they have lost all their worth.
Nothing's good enough for anyone.
And I look at my face, there's a subtle trace
Of the change that is to come."
-SixPence None the Richer: "Bleeding"-


Part 12

Six months later...

Vin felt the sting of the leather against his bare skin again; the lash cutting into him as it had done so many times before. His buttocks screamed for mercy, his back and legs more so. The cold of the darkened room added to his misery as he hung by the wrists from the rafters of some isolated haunt that could only belong to madmen.

The vile laughter rolled out of Calder's throat with glee and Vin cringed at the sound. His muscles trembled under the onslaught of both shock and hunger...as well as an incessant craving for something only a needle could provide. "Stop," he moaned. "Please."

"Begging, Tanner? Thought you were above that." Calder laughed and cracked the whip once again.

The lash against his back forced Vin to arch his body. He wanted this to end. He would take the gun to his own head if he could. He ached for the medicine. He had been denied it for so long. His body quivered, and he begged for release. No, he was not above begging anymore. Calder had seen to that. All he wanted was the escape the medicine gave him. “Please, I want the medicine.”

“No, no, Tanner. First you take what I have to give you...then, if you’re a really good boy and don’t scream, I’ll give you your medicine.”

Vin groaned when he heard the sound of oil being slicked onto something solid. He knew what was coming next.

He struggled against the ropes binding his wrists. “I want the medicine, damn you! Give it to me now!”

Meaty hands grabbed his buttocks and began to knead the welts forming. He was pulled roughly back against Calder’s groin. Vin couldn’t remember the last time whimpers were ever forced from his throat, but they spilled out constantly now. Calder refused to give him medicine. That other man, Phelps, he would come in at appointed times and offer him the needle and Vin would stretch out his hand, yearning for the release that came from the liquid inside the syringe. “Please?” he would ask Phelps, and Phelps would smile and inject him and he would float into his mind, far away from this madness and pain.

Calder’s voice filled his ears and he wanted to pull away and hide. “Did you know that blood is like alcohol, Tanner? Like you wanting that drug Phelps gives you all the time. Blood gets me drunk and all I want is more, to smell it, to run my fingers through it, and when it covers a body as nice as yours, well…" he pushed his groin against Vin's buttocks and started to rub, "Well, I just get all hard."

Vin groaned, weakly shaking his head. "Please, no, I can't take it anymore. Don't."

"You're not in charge here, Tanner. I am."

Calder unbuttoned his breeches and Vin felt the blunt end of his attacker's prize weapon pierce his body once again. "I've used your blood along with the oil to slick this up real good, Tanner."

Calder's dirty whiskey-laced breath brushed against his ear. The whiskers of the man's beard scratched over his cheek and neck. Vin felt the moist heat of Calder's breath brush over his neck and he trembled from disgust. The man's grubby hands, now stained with Vin's blood, grasped Vin's cock and began to stroke.

Vin tried to pull away from the touch, but it was no use, he was bound too tightly. The strips of leather around his wrists cut into his skin, drawing more blood. He felt the trickles leak down his arm. "Calder!" Vin shouted, aching in his body and not just from this attack. "Please!"

"Want some more medicine, Tanner?"

"It hurts," Vin moaned.

Calder thrust into him again and again, riding him like he was trying to break him, but Vin knew he had already been broken…one too many times.

His cock involuntarily went erect under Calder's stroking encouragement.

Vin groaned his protest. "Stop, please!"

"I'm gonna get you to come, Vin. You'll come for me as you came for Larabee."

Chris.

Vin hitched a breath. He shut his eyes behind his blindfold and vaguely saw Chris' face flitter across his inner vision. "Chris," he whispered. "Chris."

"That's right, Tanner. Chris Larabee has no idea where you are. Probably thinks you're dead. It's been so long."

Vin lowered his head as he felt the immense width of Calder's cock enter his body again, ripping him open to receive his venomous seed. Vin felt the man's hot fingertips rub over the tip of his cock, and he heard Calder chuckle with wretched delight. "Leaking for me already? I'm flattered, Tanner. Real flattered." His fingers clutched Vin's cock tightly, squeezing it up and down.

Vin could not help his reaction, for it was reflex, instinctive. His cock betrayed his mind, and he bucked into Calder's hand, needing to release, finding the struggle to hold back vain and useless. Calder would not stop attacking him until he came.

The pressure built up within him, and he arched his head back. "Calder!"

Then suddenly Calder pulled his hand away, leaving Vin in dire need. "No," he moaned. "No."

Calder's fingers went between Vin's legs, and pressed against the sac, on an area specifically used to hold back climatic release. "Keep from coming, Tanner." Calder pushed against that spot harder. "Keep from coming."

Vin felt the need to come fade. This had never happened before. When his body relaxed, Calder grabbed his cock once again and began to stroke it. "Want me to finish you?" Calder whispered against his ear. "Want me to push you over the edge, Tanner? Like Larabee did? Each time you want to come, I'll push against that spot to keep you from coming. You'll come when I want you to and not before. Got that?"

Vin groaned his pained response.

Calder thrust five more times before his hot seed spilled into Vin's body with vehement release.

Vin moaned as his need to come surmounted once again.

Calder pulled out of him and breathed in deeply. "Oh, yeah, Tanner. Nice and tight. Just the way I like it." He walked around and knelt in front of Vin's strung-up body. He put Vin's cock into his mouth and began to suck.

Vin arched his head back. The fingers went to the spot on his sac and once again pressure was applied. "Not yet, Tanner. You are going to scream for mercy by the time I'm done with you tonight. See, that's what I want from you. To scream."

Vin shut his eyes, but this time the image of Chris faded into a blinding darkness that held no quarter for mercy.

+++++

The gunman sat his horse and gazed out over the vast fields that stretched out into eternity. His face was covered with a thick growth of beard. His normally reddish blond hair hung straggly around his neck and was caked in dust and grime. His black clothes showed more dirt and dust than black. His black horse was as weary as he was, its head lowered in a show of defeat. The gunman would have to get a fresh horse soon or risk the animal falling out from under him.

Chris Larabee looked up at the night sky. It was clear and the stars filled its depths.

Somewhere on this earth, those stars were shining over where Vin Tanner was…possibly even the man's grave. Larabee wouldn't really allow himself to think along those lines…not yet. Not as long as he had breath in his body would the gunslinger align his soul to that dreaded, even though possible, reality. The last town he had been in was over a week ago, and he had found out it was now the middle of July. Vin had been gone for six months.

Chris clutched the reins tightly in his left hand. It was more than likely Vin had been killed by his abductors, but if he stopped searching, if he gave in to that way of thinking, Chris Larabee may just as well put a gun to his head and pull the trigger. He wasn't ready to do that. He still harbored the belief that his lover was still alive…still needing him to find him.

The telegraph he had sent from the last town only two days before had just two words on it: "Any word?" The reply had come back from Buck Wilmington: "No word. No sign. Buck." Each town Chris stopped at he sent a telegraph to Buck and the others, hoping he would receive some good news in response. Nothing. Each time it was the same. And each time the response dug a deeper and wider hole within Larabee's soul. The only light inside of him was the hope that Vin was still alive.

Chris Larabee had vowed he would search the ends of the earth until he found Vin. No one dared try to dissuade him from promise. It was the only thing keeping him alive and those who knew him knew that.

No. Chris would never believe Vin was dead…not until he saw the tracker's body for himself.

The only good news was that Tascosa had not seen Vin or his body either. No one had turned him in, either dead or alive, and for whatever reason they hadn't, Chris was grateful. But Chris was certain it wasn't the bounty they had taken Vin for. The circumstances leading up to the abduction six months before had proven that. It was Chris’ past that held the mystery that had caused Vin's disappearance. A man by the name of
Douglas. A man Chris couldn't remember.

And then there was Calder. Roy Calder, the man from Vin's past that had implemented the abduction. Messages, given two months before Vin had been taken, had come from Calder himself. It was a mystery…and Chris needed to understand before he died. He wanted to know who and why. He wanted to know so that Vin's plight would make some sort of sense. If this Douglas who had hired Calder to do the deed had wanted Chris Larabee, then why had they taken Vin? Why had they done all of this? To drive Larabee insane? Maybe. But they had not counted on the gunslinger's ability to grasp the thread of focus that refused to break within him. They had not counted on Larabee's desire and determination to find Vin Tanner, no matter how long it took, no matter how far he had to go.

Larabee clutched that thread as tightly and as continuously as he clutched his reins. He would find Vin—one way or the other.

He gently kicked the sides of his horse and headed on. Wherever the stars led him that night would be his destination. Let the world and heavens take note…

Chris Larabee was a man on a mission. Vin Tanner needed him. The gunslinger would never rest until the truth was found out. And if Vin was dead…God help the ones who had killed him.

+++++

The farmhouse was a rickety wooden shack, weathered by hard rains and blaring sun. Light from lanterns peeked out through warped cracks in the window’s shutters as Chris rode up to the dead gray colored door. There was an empty corral off to the side and a weathered and beaten barn that stood taller and more domineering than the house. His horse let out a weary snort and grunt, which brought out the owner who was a man about Chris' age. He had black hair and his beard was thick and as long as his neck. His clothes were torn and dirty. In his hand was a rifle. He aimed it at Chris. "Stay on your horse and ride out, Mister. I don't want to shoot you, but I will if you give me cause."

Chris lowered his head. "Need a place to stay for the night. I won't cause you any trouble. I'm bone weary and my horse needs tendin' to. Been traveling a great while, now. You're the first sign of life I've seen in a week. I promise, I'll be gone by mornin'."

The man looked Chris up and down; then his horse. "What's your name, stranger?"

"Larabee. Chris Larabee."

"Where you from?"

"No place you'd be interested in."

"Where are you headed?"

"Tryin' to find a friend of mine. Was taken about six months ago." Chris gazed out over the fields. He felt the strength needed to speak flow out of his body. God, he was so tired. "Bastards that took him…wanted me. Have to…have to find him."

The owner of the small structure saw the bone weary frame and the dust covering both the man and his mount. He lowered his rifle. "Name's Bill Davis. Dismount, Mister Larabee. Go inside and rest by the fire. I'll bed your horse down for you in my barn."

"I can take care of him."

"You're about ready to pass out,"
Davis
argued gently. "It's no trouble, and I can get it done quicker than you can in the state you're in. Now do as I say."

Chris nodded wearily and dismounted. He was stiff and weak and, as he neared
Davis
, he gave in to the heady call of weariness. His legs crumbled out from beneath him, and he collapsed.

Davis
caught him around the waist and lowered him to the ground. "Mister Larabee?"

"Vin. Have to find…Vin."

"Is that your friend?"

"Find him…bring him…home." Chris couldn't get any further. He passed out, and
Davis
gazed down at him with concern. He set his rifle down, picked Chris up by the arm and draped him over his shoulder, carrying him into the house. "Don't worry, Mister Larabee. I'll help you."

+++++

When Chris awoke, he found he was lying on a cot in the corner of a small shack. He vaguely remembered meeting up with a settler on a homestead. Looking across the dirt floor he saw another man sleeping in a chair by the fire.

Chris sat up and looked over to the shuttered windows. Sunlight was streaming in through the cracks of the wood slats. He threw the covers off of him, sat up and realized that was a mistake. He was so weary that his head and entire body ached from the movement.

Davis
awoke. "Well, sir, good morning to you."

"For some people it is," Chris muttered dryly; then yawned.

"You best not try to get up too quickly. You look entirely spent and about ready to fall flat on your face again. You need to rest some more and get some decent food into you."

Chris shook his head. "I told you I'd be gone by mornin'. It's mornin'."

"I can't let you leave without feeding you and your horse. Took me a good solid two hours to brush that animal down to where he looks somewhat presentable."

Chris rubbed the back of his neck. "Where the hell is this place?"

"You're in the southern part of
Colorado
, my friend. Near the western boundary. How far have you come?"

"A place near the Mexican border."

"You seem to have come much further than that. You said you were looking for a friend?"

"Checking every direction I can. Taking me a long time to reach this far. Traveling in circles, I guess, stretching further out as I go."

"Maybe I've seen your friend pass this way. I go to town about a half days travel from here. How long he been gone did you say?"

"Six months."

"Long time."
Davis
stood and set a pot of coffee on his stove. He stoked the fire under it, adding more kindling. "What's his name? What's he look like?"

"Tanner. He has long light brown hair. Ever seen the ocean?”

“Seen paintings of it. Never been there. Why?”

Chris took on a vacant gaze. “His eyes...deeper than the color of a crystal blue ocean, or least ways what I could see in paintings. Blue eyes like a storm on the water. He’s tall, lanky, leans a lot."

Davis
shook his head. "Ain't seen anyone like him. Sorry I can't help you there."

"Didn't expect you'd be able to. Ain't having much luck. No one I speak to seems to have seen him."

"How'd he go missing? You said some men took him?"

"Yeah. A guy by the name of Roy Calder and a short city-slicker named Phelps."

"Calder? That man wanted for murder? He took your friend?"

"Yeah, it's a long story, but I don't think he wants him dead. He had plenty of opportunity to kill him before they took him."

"Why were they after you, then?"

Chris shook his head. "No idea. Tryin' to figure it out."

Davis
sighed and stood from his chair. He went to the rack on the wall by the door and removed his hat. "Well, stay here and rest a spell. You and your horse could both use it. We can go to town tomorrow and see what we can find while you load up on supplies."

"Much obliged, but I can't stay. Have to keep going."

"Mister, you're in no condition to travel. When was the last time you slept? I mean really slept? You are not going to do your friend any good if you find him and can't lift a gun. Use some sense, now."

Chris almost grinned. "You sound like a healer friend of mine."

Davis
chuckled. "Well, I'd like to help if I can. Don't get many folks stopping by here."

"I don't mean to put you out," Chris said.

"You just worry about getting some rest. I'll go tend your horse. The coffee will be ready in a few minutes."
Davis
put on his hat and headed out the door.

Chris laid back down and rubbed his eyes. He couldn't remember when he had ever been so tired before. Maybe
Davis
was right. To find Vin he would need to be able to hold his own. It was good sense.

Before he knew it he was asleep again.

+++++

The next morning, Chris sat at the small table as
Davis
dished out their breakfast. Eggs, ham, bacon and biscuits. "I keep a store of food in the barn. Got a section of food growing. Got some good rain this winter. Will probably have a grand crop."

Chris ate and realized just how hungry he was. In minutes his share of the meal was gone and
Davis
grinned. "At least your appetite isn't spoiled. Your body is in dire need of rest and food, Mister Larabee."

"Haven't ate or slept much since Vin disappeared."

"I suppose you haven't. Must be a close friend to you."

Chris nodded, knowing what a man like
Davis
would think of his exact relationship to the tracker. But he wouldn't lie about the situation either. He responded in the best possible way. "He's like kin."

Davis
poured them both some more coffee and sat down. "I know you can't be staying. Probably head out once we see if there's any word on your friend in town. But I want you to know, if you think you need more rest, I can put you up for another day or two."

"Obliged, but no. I need to keep searching. Each day I lose time is more time away from the answers."

Davis
finished off his coffee and stood. "I'll saddle your horse and hitch up my team. We'll be on our way within the hour."

"
Davis
, I appreciate all you've done."

"Never you mind. I just hope when you find your friend that you'll send me word. I'd like to know it wasn't all for nothing."

Chris nodded. "I'll do that."

+++++

It had taken less than a day to reach the nearest town and Chris once again sent a telegraph back home. "Near
Utah. No sign. Will be circling around. Any word?"


The reply came back an hour later. "No word. No sign. Buck."

Chris sighed. He asked around town to see if anyone had seen Vin or the men who had taken him. Nothing.

Davis was loading up his wagon with supplies and Chris lent his two arms to the task. "Anything?" the settler asked.

Chris shook his head.

Davis
sighed, and not from lifting heavy sacks of grain into his wagon. "Seems to me you're looking for a needle in a haystack."

Chris snorted. "If I had a nickel for every time I heard that one…" he let the thought trail off.

"Maybe you should go back to where you came from, Mister Larabee. Sometimes when we head back where we started we can see a clearer direction to take."

Chris wondered about that as he helped
Davis tie down his bags and barrels. Heading back was a thought that had passed his mind a time or two, especially these last few weeks. Maybe it was Vin's soul calling him back to where it all began. Maybe it was just Chris' need to know for sure that he hadn't missed a sign back where it all began. He gnawed at the inner side of his mouth as he pondered Davis
' suggestion, which echoed his own questing heart. "Maybe you're right. I'll think on it."

When the supplies were loaded, the two men looked at each other. "I suppose you'll be on your way then,"
Davis
said.

Chris nodded. "Thanks for all your help."

Davis
shook Chris' offered hand. "Remember what you promised. You send word the moment you know he's alive."

"I will." Chris mounted his horse, and with a tip of his hat, started out of town.

+++++

Buck came out of the telegraph office only to find Ezra standing outside waiting for him, smoking on his cigar and watching him carefully. “Well?” he asked.

Buck shook his head and tapped the wire against his wrist. “
Southern Colorado
, still searching.” Buck walked off the boardwalk, his head down, he turned down the nearest alley.

Ezra scrutinized him for a moment, suspecting why the scoundrel looked as though an immense weight had just landed on his shoulders, but uncertain enough to forego assumption. He followed after Buck and watched with dismay as the larger man leaned against a back wall and hunched his shoulders. A hand to the face, a quiet sniffle and Ezra understood that his suspicion had been correct. He did not bother to quiet his movements, allowing Buck to know he was approaching. “Mister Wilmington? Are you all right, sir?”

Buck slowly turned and leaned back against the building wall. Around them crates and old boxes were stacked high and some were scattered, giving them a form of privacy from those people walking up and down the street.

“Haven’t been able to tell him Mary left to go back east. She gave up on Chris just like that, Ezra. Though I can’t say as I blame her. Nothing left here for her. Memories is all, but not enough for her to put down roots like she wanted. But I think her hopes were set on Chris and her getting together. When that didn’t happen...” he paused a moment. He looked at Ezra. “She put the Clarion in your hands.” Buck formed a half-hearted chuckle. “Don’t know how you manage to own a saloon as well as a newspaper business, Ezra, but damn me if you can’t keep things on track.”

At the word ‘track’ Buck’s smile slipped, and he gazed down at the paper in his hand. A few silent tears fell from his stricken face, hitting the paper. Buck did not bother to try and brush them away or excuse them.

Ezra moved closer, putting himself between Buck and the alley entrance. “This is the alley where Vin took care of Marcus that day those men demeaned the actor with the paint and quirt, isn’t it?”

Buck nodded. “That it is. Marcus had to help him cool down, though. He took Vin’s soul into careful hands and calmed him. I’ll never forget the powerful anger Vin released that day.”

Ezra removed his hat, holding it between his hands. He lowered his head, fighting back the pain the memories of that beautiful young man brought him. “I remember it well. His fury was so that Josiah had to put him in a terrifying hold as to keep him from killing those men. I had never thought such fury possible within Mister Tanner’s heart.”

“He loved Marcus, Ezra. We all know that, but it was so powerful an attachment.” Buck stopped, hitched a breath. He put a hand to his heart and fought back the tears. “And when I helped Vin bring Marcus back here to clean him up, get him away from the people...you know, it was then I could see the child inside of Vin, Ezra. That child that wanted to touch the world and see it with brand new eyes. I could see why Chris took him into his heart in that very moment. Damn tracker stole his heart, Ez. And now that he’s gone, so is the heartbeat that kept Chris alive. We lost both of them that day.”

Ezra moved up closer to Buck. “Sir, if you would let me buy you a drink?”

Buck leaned his head back and streams of tears flowed down his face. “It’s going to take more than a drink, Ezra. Much more. I’ve lost my best friend. He died the moment they took Vin. Had a dream...before Vin...” he shook his head. “I never cotton to dreams, Ez, not like Josiah does. But this one...it came true.” He turned to Ezra, his eyes wet and red. “How can you help someone who traps himself inside a room that can’t be broken into, that can’t be torn down because he won’t let it be? How can you help someone who doesn’t realize that he’s dying, or if he does, doesn’t want to care?”

Ezra lowered his head. “I wish there was something...”

“God, Ezra. Does this alley not remind you of something else?”

Ezra took a moment to look up and down the length of the alley. “Sir, I’m not...”

“That morning,” Buck said, a low whisper clouding his words. “That morning you confessed what you had seen between Chris and Vin at Shepherd’s Rock. Do you remember? Do you remember how you said you envied what they shared?”

Ezra looked at Buck with uncertainty. “Mister Wilmington, we promised each other that we would take time...”

“Damn it, Ez!” Buck was not angry as much as desperate. He turned away from the gambler. “When you were shot. I don’t know if you know this, but...I stayed up with you all that night. I couldn’t leave your side. I know about the note Pitch gave you. I read it. I understood why you’d become so distant. Fear does that to people, it makes them put up walls. Keeps out the danger, but it also keeps out the joy. God, Ezra, seeing Chris like this, knowing what his love for Vin is doing to him...but damn it! He loves! By all that is pure and right, he loves. And it’s not just a passing thing here.” He waved the telegram in front of Ezra. “It’s real and forever and if Vin is dead Chris will be sure to follow.”

Ezra moved even closer, put a hand to Buck’s arm. “Sir, are you saying something as deep as what they share...this is what you are needing...from me?”

And before he knew it, Buck had him in his arms, holding him tight. Surprised by the action, Ezra did not move to protest it. For a moment he just stood there and let the larger man embrace him, for Buck had held all of this in since the beginning, and it was very clear he could take no more.

Ezra slowly put his arms around Buck in an attempt to find some way to let him know that all was not lost, but...it was more than that. Ezra knew it in his heart. He could not deny what he had been feeling all this time. The time he and Josiah has spent in
Denver and San Francisco
to investigate Phelps’ connections, had been enough to help him put his thoughts together. Everywhere he had turned he had hoped to see Buck there with him. And when he and Josiah had returned from their journey, he had found Buck waiting for him at the stage drop off. The greeting in Buck’s eyes was as warm as he had ever seen it. A brush of the hand when taking Ezra’s bag from him, soft, meaningful, but quite literally inconspicuous. A casual glance here and there. Buck had missed him.

Ezra had tried to ignore the signals He had tried to ignore the looks, the smiles, the eyes that bore into his soul and sought to drain him of his resolve. Buck
Wilmington
had the means, though. He had the means to break down the defenses of those he wanted. And it seemed on that morning, in this alley, it had not been a flash in the pan experiment on how to walk the other side of the tracks. He had kept his heart right where he wanted it...waiting patiently for Ezra to learn how not to be afraid again.

Ezra fell into the embrace. “God, Buck,” he whispered. “I need you, too.”

Buck gently pulled away and looked deeply into Ezra’s green eyes. “About damn time you folded.”

Ezra smirked. “You kept the game going by bluffing your way the other direction, sir.”

“Just biding my time, Ez.”

The sound of women laughing very close to the alley forced them to break apart quickly.

The action brought the telegram back to Buck’s attention. They waited for the women to pass by, making sure no one had seen them.

Buck slapped the paper against his wrist.

“Damn bastard,” Buck almost choked out. “Can’t stand the thought of his life being ripped out of him. If only we could give him news. If only we could give him...something!” His shoulders shook as he fought to keep the anger at bay. “Damn it, Ezra, tell me something. Anything at all! You had to have found something when you and Josiah went to
Denver
and ‘Frisco. Something had to have made sense.”

Ezra moved in closer, putting a hand to Buck’s shoulder and squeezing it tenderly. “The treks that Josiah and I made to
Denver and San Francisco during that time showed no clues, Mister Wilmington, you know that. We told you all the minute we returned. I’m sorry. Josiah and I asked everywhere we could think of, we moved in and out of the areas Phelps had worked as a reporter, but there was no one who knew anything. It’s as though he completely vanished from this world. I have heard no further word from those contacts we made in San Francisco
since returning. If he’s there, he’s in hiding.”

Buck let out a nervous chuckle and turned to Ezra, his lips trembling. “I just thought maybe something had fallen into that incredible mind of yours, something that could...”

“Something that could jar a piece of the puzzle back into place, sir?”

“Yeah, Ez. Something like that.”

Ezra smiled. “I may be quick and able to think myself out of precarious circumstances, Mister Wilmington, but a certified man who works miracles is beyond my expertise.”

And when his eyes met Buck’s, he saw in the scoundrel’s expression a look of such fondness and affection that it stole his breath for a few heartbeats.

Buck quickly turned away, clearing his throat. “I’ll take you up on that drink, now, Ez, that is if you’re still offering.”

Ezra smiled, flicked the ashes off the end of his cigar and placed it in his front coat pocket. “It would be my honor, sir.”

Buck returned the smile, affording Ezra’s presence a glimmer of gratitude for not running off after Buck’s questionable display of emotion a few moments before. “Thanks, Ez. Right kind of ya’.”

Ezra sobered. “Sir, in this instance, the gesture is strictly one of friendship, kindness notwithstanding, for I, too, have felt the weight of this loss in ways you cannot imagine. Perhaps between the two of us,” he reached out and fingered Buck’s shirt collar, “Perhaps we may find some solace.”

Buck crumpled the paper in a fisted grip and threw it to the side. The two then headed out of the alley and over to the saloon, side by side as though they had been walking that way all their lives.

+++++

When Chris unloaded his saddlebag, later that night, he found plenty of food to see him through the next couple of days.
Davis
had seen fit to not let him leave without some assurance of keeping his strength up. Chris marveled at the homesteader's gracious and giving heart.

As he sat by that night's fire, he munched on some bread and cheese, but the thoughts of Vin that filled his mind drew his desire away from filling his stomach. It had been five and a half months of traveling for Chris. Maybe
Davis
was right. Maybe he should go back, if only for a day or two. Get his bearings; try to gain some focus. Maybe on his way, he would come across someone who would have word. Maybe. It was a shot in the dark, but it was all he had, and in spite of it all, he still had good aim, when his focus was clear.

As Chris finished his small meal, he gazed into the flames of the fire and remembered the night of Marcus' murder. How Vin had grieved and turned to Chris for the help he ached for. He remembered how Vin had gazed into the flames of his small campfire, never truly seeing Chris approach him.

Chris knew it was around that time that his feelings for Vin began to change. He had seen the poet's heart of a best friend turn into a heart that sang to Chris' troubled spirit with more than a song of friendship.

Marcus had done a lot to help that change come into being. Chris had watched the connection form between Marcus and Vin, and he found himself wanting to give Vin more than just support. Marcus had touched a spot in Vin that helped the tracker to reach out to Chris that night. And in that act of reaching out, it spawned a turn in the road for Chris' own grief and desire to hold onto the past.

Vin had become more than just a friend that night. At least he had become more in Chris' heart. And all he had wanted to do was take Vin's pain away. Then, when Vin had quoted that poem to him the next morning, writing it just for him, it had sealed Chris' supposed feelings into fact. It was in that span of time that he knew he was falling for the tracker. He knew it as surely as he knew that Vin's pain for Marcus' death was real.

The memory of Vin's grief, the memory of those few days that changed both of their lives, pierced his heart and Chris shut his eyes. After he was sure he had regained control, he reached into his pocket and pulled out Vin's journal. He knew he was betraying his lover's privacy by doing this, but he couldn't not do it. It kept him connected with Vin in some small way. He opened the pages and began to read once more the entries that had filled his mind with Vin's voice.

"Nevr met nyone like Chris. Somtims I wish I nevr had. I gron to care fer 'im, like a brothur. But…hes a mystry. I don medl. We talk, but werds don need sayn'. I git a pain in my ches when I see 'im hertin. I no he luvd 'is famlee. I recon I hert fer 'im. Nevr had a frend to hert fer. Not like this. I shuldn't let 'im se me hert fer Marcus. It brings memrys bac fer 'im. But, he neds ta' be ther. It's a ned, Siah sez. Don ned no pratectin, but Chris neds ta help me. Recon I neds it to. Nevr thot Id rit somthin like this. Nevr had reson to. Chris and the othrs…wel, I recon Iv changd. Is this wat it meens ta' hav a famlee?"

Chris overlooked the misspelled words. The way the words were spelled did not mean anything. The meaning behind them did. He shut his eyes as the stinging tears formed behind them. He closed the book and lowered his head.

He had not allowed himself to read that far ahead into the journal. This entry was as fresh to him as it was fresh the day Vin wrote it. One of the first entries he wrote after receiving the journal. The entry dated was two months before his abduction, very shortly before he and Chris had become lovers.

Chris opened his eyes and the tears streamed down. "Damn you, Tanner. How the hell is it you've come to mean so damn much to me?"

+++++

The rider was on the hilltop, sitting his horse, silhouetted in the orange hues of the setting sun. Chris noticed the slouch, the familiar lean and tilt of his head. "Hey, Cowboy."

Chris was now sitting his horse next to the rider. "Where ya' been, Tanner?" he asked as the two clasped arms.

"Waitin' fer you," the quiet voice replied in that Texan drawl that was music to Chris' ears.

"Thought I'd lost you," Chris said, and he felt the smile beam from his face.

Vin shook his head and grinned back at him. The tracker wrapped a leg around his saddle horn and rested an elbow on the bent knee. "Yonder a ways, I saw ya' ridin'. Came ta' tell ya' not ta quit."

Chris tilted his head slightly to the side and looked at Vin curiously. "What are you sayin'?"

"
Davis was right. Start at the beginning, Cowboy." Vin flashed him a smile and a shrug. "Waitin' on ya. And the snow’s comin' fast."

"Snow?"

"Covers the top in white. Ever ride the white, Chris?"

"Don't know," Chris replied, and it didn't occur to him that Vin was talking strangely.

Vin turned and pointed down into the valley. "See? Covers ya' and won't let go."

Chris turned to see a snow filled valley and a blizzard circling the area. He turned back to where Vin had been and saw the tracker was gone, but the voice came to him on the wind. "I'm dyin'. Don't wait too long, Cowboy."

Chris turned his horse and headed into the valley where he saw something in the snow.

He rode closer and dismounted. Approaching on foot he saw the arm sticking out of the snow and recognized the buckskin. In the frozen hand was Vin's Mare's Leg, clutched in lifeless fingers.


Chris bolted up with a strangled gasp of fear. He quickly looked around and realized that there was no snow. "Vin?" he called out and scrambled to his feet. He looked all around him in the glow of the dying fire. "VIN!" he yelled. Then he collapsed to the ground and wrapped his arms around his head. God! I am going insane.

He laid there for a few minutes trying to regain his focus. The dream had scared the shit out of him, and he needed to quiet his heart down. "Vin," he moaned out similar to the way he had moaned out his wife’s and son's name the night after he had found them dead.

Not dead. He can't be dead. He came to tell me not to quit. He ain't dead.

Chris pulled himself to a sitting position and stared at his black horse. The animal stared right back at him. "Reckon you think I'm crazy, don't ya'?" he muttered to the horse as he pushed himself to his feet. He began to pack up his things. "Maybe I am," he commented with a snort.

One thing he knew for sure. Something was calling him back home. Why, he had no idea.
Davis' words rang clear: "Sometimes when we head back where we started we can see a clearer direction to take."

Back where we started. The words flicked across Chris' mind as he stilled his movements. "Familiar surroundings," he muttered. He continued rolling up his bedroll. "One more time. See it one more time, then never look back."

 

Part 13

The weeks wore on and Chris kept his pace steady. His horse was the only thing to get him to the next town, and he knew the mount was barely making it. He would have to get a fresh horse. He still had a week of travel before him. He couldn't take the chance that his horse would collapse and leave him on foot. Whose bright idea was it to make
Arizona
so damn big anyway?

Once a fresh mount had been obtained and more supplies loaded, Chris headed out once more. The need to return home grew within him, though he wasn’t sure why. Maybe there was something he had missed. Maybe word had gotten back. Something was tugging at him, moving him maybe. 'Maybe the answer is right under my nose and I'm just too damned blind to see it,' he thought. Maybe...

…He shook his head. He hated leaving his black in that town, but he would have someone come for him later. He had to see the others. He had to know the town was all right. Buck would have said in his responses if he was needed, but then again, maybe he wouldn't have.

The other five could handle any trouble. Of that he had no doubt. If anything, he would be able to say 'good-bye' to the others properly. They deserved that much, at the very least.

+++++

He stood on the perimeter and gazed out over Shepherd's Rock. Marcus' grave was clearly seen.

The rose bushes he and Vin had picked for the grave had grown into a canopy over the site.

Chris tied his horse to a tree and walked down to the grave. He removed his hat and gazed down at the freshly weeded area. JD had kept the site clean and growing. 'Bless you, Kid,' Chris thought. 'Vin would be grateful.'

He cleared his throat. "This may be my last time I visit your grave," he spoke softly as he gazed at the tombstone. "Haven't found him yet, Marcus. I will, though. If you're able to lead me, then I'm willing to believe you can. I know you..." he stopped and choked on the next words. "You loved him, too." He had to chuckle at that. "Never thought I'd say that about Vin to anyone, but I know, somehow, I can say it to you and you'll understand. Your love for Vin was clear, written on your face like words on a page."

Chris took out Vin's journal from his duster pocket. He opened it up. "I found some things he wrote about you. Thought you might like to hear them." He cleared his throat as he began to recite…

"Marcus lives on inside me. I sometimes feel his presence so near. It's like with Chris. If there is a God, then I've been blessed with two such friends in my life." Chris turned the pages back and looked at the grave. "He wrote you a letter as well, kept it in here. Whether he spoke it to you or not, I don't know, but in case he didn't I'd like to do it on his behalf."

He found the page and read aloud...

"Marcus,
Words were what you taught me, but words cannot describe the emptiness I feel now that you're gone. I thank God for Chris and the others who fill that emptiness with their friendship. You and I were a lot alike. Drifters looking for a place to plant our roots. I reckon I'll never find mine, but now I know it don't matter none. You taught me that anywhere there's family, there are roots. Only in my case they would be in the heart and soul, not on a homestead or in a town. I wouldn't dare ask Chris to travel with me, but somehow I feel I won't have to. Lessen he decides to settle down, either with Mary or someone else. If he doesn't, though, somehow I know we'll always ride together. Even if we're only riding together in spirit. Like you ride with me now. If something should happen to me, Marcus, I'd be obliged if'n you take care of Chris for me. Watch over him and the others, like a guardian angel. The reason I'm asking you to do it is because I may not end up in Heaven when I die. Lord knows I'm a sinner. Done some bad things. Don't know if'n God can overlook what I've done. You told me my friendship with you proved to you that God does exist. Your friendship and Chris' proved the same thing to me. I just never really allowed myself to believe it until I just wrote those words. You were right. Words are tools that can be used to build up. Well, Marcus, I reckon I'm getting a bit...what would Ezra call it? Maudlin? He said it means 'sappy', but I don't want to dishonor your memory by using that word. So, maudlin is what I've written here. I think about you everyday, course, maybe you know that already. Just in case you don't, I wanted to say it right out. You're my first letter, Marcus. I felt it fitting I should write to you first, even though I know you'll never hold this letter in your hands. Maybe you'll see the words as you look over my shoulder. Maybe it will make you smile. I hope so. I just wanted you to know I'm all right. Getting better every day, even though at times I miss you something fierce. Chris sees those times and lets me ride off to be alone. You told me he thinks of me as a brother. Well, I could do no better than him for mine. If God does happen to let me into Heaven when I die, then I will see you soon. If not, then these words are all I have for you to keep. Don't worry none about me, Marcus. I've got Chris and the others. I'm doing all right. With respect...and yes, with love, Vin Tanner."

Chris closed the book and placed it back in his duster pocket. He took a moment to wipe his eyes. "Be his guardian angel, Marcus. If you look out for Vin, then you'll be looking out for me." He slowly turned and put his hat back on. He headed back to his horse and mounted. He rode off without looking back.

+++++

When he rode into town it was mid-afternoon. Almost none of the people stopped and stared at him as he rode by. Those that did he did not bother to acknowledge. The town had grown bigger since he had left. He took another moment to glance around him at the repainted structures, the new signs on the buildings. Things had changed. No, this was no longer his home anymore. Too many changes, too many people...no Vin. He wondered if even the rest of the Seven had stayed on. Had JD gone and married that girl Cassie and settled down? Was Ezra still gambling at a saloon somewhere? Had Josiah finally put together a congregation? Was Nathan still healing people or had he taken up with Rain on the reservation outside of town and continued to help the Indians? He noticed that the Potter’s General Store was still in business. Well, good, then. Some things did feel like home, if not everything. He would stop in and pay his respects to Mrs. Potter. She had been like a mother to all of the boys, more so to Vin and JD. He would let her know he appreciated her kindness.

But right now his mind was on the verge of turning in on itself, if his body didn’t consider the action first. Tired as hell he stopped his horse outside the saloon. Buck was sitting outside the batwing doors, leaning back in a chair, head down, napping.

Chris watched his old friend for a few seconds. Buck did not stir awake even in spite of the increased activity bustling around them. People were in such a hurry these days. Chris shook his head, glad he was out of the thick of this mess. He turned his attention back to his sleeping friend. "Buck," he said.

Buck jerked awake and pulled his hat up to stare into the bearded face of the man who had been his friend all these years. He jumped to his feet, face beaming with surprise. "Chris!" He watched as his friend dismounted slowly. Buck’s beaming face sobered into sorrow. The man before him was not the man who had ridden out almost seven months before. As much as Buck hated to admit it, Chris Larabee was now a mere walking corpse.

Chris tied his horse to the hitching rail and mounted the porch. He lifted weary eyes to his friend, and Buck gazed at him with compassion. "Still no sign?"

"No," Chris replied, as though it took all his strength just to say that one pitiful word. He pushed past Buck and headed into the saloon.

Buck clenched his fists. Vin had been gone for nearly seven months now, give or take a week. The coldness of January suddenly a fading memory in August’s cruel heat. Chris had searched everywhere for Vin. All they had were three names as clues. Douglas, Roy Calder, and that Phelps character, and no sign of either of them ever since Vin had been taken. From the look in Chris' eyes it was certain the gunslinger had all but given up.

Buck followed Chris into the saloon where he found his old friend leaning against the bar pouring himself a whiskey.

Buck leaned back against the counter. "You look like hell, Chris."

"Feel like it. May as well look it, too."

"You heading back out again?"

Chris downed the shot of whiskey, and poured himself another one. "Just as soon as I get cleaned up and get me a fresh horse."

"Chris...it's been almost seven months," Buck tried to rationalize.

Chris set the glass down and picked up his hat. He glared at Buck. "I don't care if it's been seven years. I'll go to the ends of the earth. Dead or alive, I'll find him."

"Would you listen to yourself, Chris? This has become an obsession with you! He's probably dead and buried in an unmarked grave between here and God knows where. And you think you're gonna comb every inch of this country to find him! You're going crazy!"

"Then I'll find his killers!" Chris roared. Taking the shot glass he threw it across the saloon. A patron managed to duck in time and all eyes turned on him.

Buck quickly leaned in closer and lowered his voice. "I know what Vin meant to you, ole Pard. He was the one person you allowed inside after Sarah and Adam were killed." Buck gripped Chris' shoulder and the look he gave the blond man determined his next words. "And you know some of us know exactly how much you let him inside, Pard, but I can't see you throwing your life away based on some guessing game you refuse to lose to. You're gonna have to let it go, Chris. This is tearing you up. You're gonna end up destroying yourself. You've got to come to terms with the fact that Vin is gone."

Chris turned on Buck and snarled, "If it was JD gone missin', would you just give up?"

Buck saw the pain in Chris' eyes. Chris was already destroyed. The only thing that kept him going, it seemed, was the hope that Vin was still alive. And, if not alive, then the hope of one day finding his killers. Buck sighed. "Guess not," he whispered.

Chris released his hold. "Josiah still in town?"

"Yeah. He's at the church," Buck replied, solemnly.

Chris started out of the saloon when he stopped and turned to Buck. "How is JD?"

"Messed up. Two of his hero's are missing and he feels he can't do anything to help."

"Two?" Chris questioned.

"Sure. Don't you know that you're his hero, too?"

Chris shook his head. "Tell him to wake up. The dream is over." He headed out the doors and started down the street toward the church.

Buck watched him go and sighed. "You tell him, old pard. Just 'cause your heart's shattered, that don't mean I'll shatter his."

+++++

Josiah heard the sound of footsteps, and he turned from where he was dusting the pews. "Chris Larabee. My, my." Josiah stood and set the dust cloth on the pew he was working on. He walked up to his friend and, without hesitation, hugged him, knowing perfectly well he could be laid out flat for such a move.

To the preacher's surprise, Chris returned the hug. "How are you, my friend?" Josiah asked.

"I'm not sure, Josiah. I guess I needed to speak to someone who maybe could help me understand."

Josiah released Chris, but kept his hands on his shoulders. "The weight of the world has rested on you, Chris. Perhaps I can ease the burden some. I'd like to try."

Josiah gestured to a pew and Chris sat down. "I'm not much of a spiritual man, Josiah."

"Chris, the Lord leads those who seek Him. They need not be spiritual to receive His touch."

"It's not really the Lord I'm interested in."

Josiah shook his head. "I have no news, Chris."

"It's not news I'm looking for either."

"Then what, my friend?"

"I'm heading out again. I need to know, by not letting this go...am I honoring Vin? Or should I let this go thinking I'm honoring him, when in fact I'm letting him down? My gut keeps telling me he's still alive, but..."

"But common sense and the heart are constantly at battle with each other," Josiah offered.

Chris nodded solemnly. "Everything inside me wants to stay loyal to the belief he's still alive. That all I have to do is keep searching. That he's countin' on me to find him."

"My friend, could you live with yourself if you gave up the search?"

Chris stood and walked to the back of the church. "I already feel like I'm dead inside, Josiah."

"And this is giving you a purpose to continue living. Buck and I have wondered how much of this would it take to break you. Are you broken, Chris?"

Chris turned to him, his face drawn and haggard, his eyes dead. "When I find Vin's dead body, that will be when I break, 'Siah. But inside, I'm hanging on by a nail."

Josiah nodded solemnly. He approached Chris, his hands sliding into his back pockets. "Chris, never, ever have I questioned the love between two people. I've been practically all around the world, seen some mighty strange things, well, things that would be considered strange by folks in our country. But those things we would consider strange, other folks in other countries would consider normal. Who are we to tell them that they're wrong, when it works so right for them? If your love for Vin pushes you to still look for him, then who am I, or anyone, to tell you that what you're doing is wrong? If you cannot find it in yourself to live outside of knowing his fate, then please, my friend, rest your heart and mind in the knowledge that you have my friendship from here until eternity, and so does Vin. Speak your mind to me and know you can do so safely."

Chris would have wept right there, with the release those words gave his spirit. And a few tears managed to sting his eyes, but he pushed them back before they were allowed their freedom. He hadn't really been certain what it was he had been looking for from the preacher, until Josiah had spoken. He walked off a few steps, his head lowered, studying his hat, his dirty fingers, the tops of his dust-covered boots. "It's just that I feel if I give up, I'm letting Vin down. I can't do that."

Josiah lowered his head, clearly affected by this bitter confession. "I believe this search can only be wrong if you let it destroy you. You said you were dead inside. You don't believe Vin is dead do you?"

"I can't believe it, Josiah. Not until I see evidence proving the fact."

"I think you just answered your own question, Chris."

"What do you mean?"

"At first you refused to acknowledge even the possibility of Vin's death. Now, slowly, that possibility is making itself known to you. I think in time, whatever direction your heart takes, should Vin be dead, you will learn to accept his death and move on. For right now, your heart tells you to keep searching. Then do that. Let time take care of whether it's a right or wrong move."

Chris nodded. "Thank you, Josiah."

"Shall I accompany you this time?"

"No. With your words of wisdom you're still needed here." Chris put his hat on and glanced up at Josiah. He held out his hand.

The larger man shook it. "For what it's worth, Chris. I believe that Vin is still alive and that you will find him."

Chris nodded. "That's worth more than I can tell you, Preacher."

+++++

"Mister Jones!" The hired hand ran into the mansion. "Mister Jones!" he called out again.

The white haired man entered from the dining area and looked at his employee appalled. "I'm right here, Tompkins. What the devil is all the shouting about?"

"Larabee just rode into town. I came as soon as I saw him."

"Good. It's about time. Phelps?"

The short man appeared at his side. "Sir?"

"Prepare another dose of medicine for our young friend. We have a package to deliver to Mister Larabee."

Phelps turned to see the young man sitting languidly on the chair in the study. "We should really clean him up, Mister Jones."

"No time. There's no telling how long Larabee will stay in town this time. I want to be sure to deliver Mister Tanner to him directly. Tompkins, hitch up the team. We leave in twenty minutes."

"Yes, sir."

Phelps walked into the study and went over to the desk where he pulled out the syringe kit. He lit the fire underneath the heating plate and began to form the mixture. "One more, Tanner. And then your next stop will be...hell." He pulled out the syringe and gazed at the needle. "The problem now is finding a vein that hasn't been used up yet."

Vin Tanner said nothing. He sat there, gazing ahead of him at really nothing. He was lost in his own little world.

+++++

Chris was in the saloon standing at the bar. He was buying a bottle of whiskey for his next jaunt out. He was clean-shaven, his duster was still covered with dust as was his hat, but he had bathed his body of the grime, and looked somewhat human again, in spite of the gaunt cheeks. Supplies were packed in the saddlebag, which now rested on a fresh horse's back.

Buck and JD came up to either side of him. JD's eyes were filled with sorrow. “We’re still hoping you'll find him, Chris," he said softly.

Chris took a moment, staring at the bar counter. Then he lifted empty eyes to JD. "I want to thank you for taking care of Marcus' grave, JD. I know Vin would appreciate it, too."

JD just kept looking at Chris, unable to respond. He felt his throat choke up. He tore his eyes away and looked down; hoping the gunslinger didn't see the tears forming.

Chris turned back to the counter and fingered the bottle of whiskey. "Kid, I know this isn't how you want this story to end. It's been a pleasure knowing you." He held out his hand and JD slowly shook it, fighting back the tears. God, could the kid be so innocent and soft hearted that he could still allow tears without shame? Where the hell are my tears? Why in the hell can't I allow my heart to bleed out the infection inside? He looked into JD's eyes and searched for an answer. My heart died with my wife and son. It resurrected with a scrawny bounty hunter, and when he was taken, my heart left too. Not much else to do but breathe and walk, sleep and eat. Vin Tanner, I hardly knew ya', but you son of a bitch, you stole my heart. That's it. No more. I ain't gonna care about anyone anymore. The law, what's right and wrong, but no more people. Losing them just keeps killing me...well, this time I'm staying dead and buried. Got no reason to do any more than that. Not even for Buck. Not even for JD.

JD felt the callused hand slide out from his and knew that Chris' heart was now only held together by the calluses around it. Shit, JD. First you thought you could be like Vin as a sharpshooter, now you're trying to be a poet. Only Vin can be those things in this outfit. Only Vin. He cleared his throat. "I've never bought you a drink, Chris. I'd be honored if you let me buy you one now."

Chris gazed at JD. The kid was so young. It wasn't hero worship that the offer stemmed from. It was friendship. Suddenly Chris realized he wasn't the only one going through this pain of not knowing whether Vin was alive or dead. What the hell? he thought. For the memories. For the Seven. I can bury myself the moment I ride out of here...but not in front of JD. Can't do that to him. I won't. He put a hand to the youth's neck and gave it a squeeze. "That would be right fine, JD. Thank you."

JD looked up at him with pride and he turned to the bar keep. "Joe? Three whiskeys."

"Three whiskeys coming up."

"Kid, ole' Buck is not about to intrude on this moment. I'm buying my own." Buck took out a coin and threw it on the counter. He then took his whiskey and walked off leaving Chris and JD alone.

Chris lifted his glass as JD paid for the drinks. "To you, JD. May you never lose that part of you that is able to feel. May you always stand true to your heart. And may you always find what you're looking for."

JD lifted his glass. "To Vin. May the bastards that took him...rot in hell."

The two drank. Chris laid the glass on the counter and turned thoughtful. "If I don't find him this time, JD...I won't be coming back. Don't go lookin' for me. I want you to promise me you'll let it go."

JD lowered his head and leaned forward, resting his arms on top of the counter. Sadness filled his eyes. "Why can't you just let it go, Chris?"

Chris sighed and mirrored JD's movements. "Vin's soul," he replied and that was all that needed to be said.

JD shut his eyes, forcing the tears back. "I understand," he choked. "If it was Buck gone missing, I'd feel the same way."

"As he would you."

Suddenly time seemed to slow to a snail's pace. Everything stopped as Buck's whiskey glass shattered onto the floor. Chris turned along with JD to see the tall man's face grow pale as he straightened and his eyes growing wide with shock.

"Vin!" Buck spoke.

Chris slowly turned. Dear God why was he moving so slowly? And when he finally turned to see where Buck was pointing, he froze at the sight before him. Vin was standing there...not six feet away.

The tracker's face was bruised. His hair was filthy and stringy. His clothes were torn. His buckskin jacket was gone. He was covered with filth and dirt, but none of that was what bothered Chris. He saw the look in Vin’s face...gaunt, stricken, as though death was a mere step away, and waiting for Vin to fall into his arms.

He felt JD's hand squeezing his arm. "Chris?" JD seemed to be reacting like he was. Unsure, unable to believe the reality of Vin's living form standing in front of them. "JD, I need you to get Nathan. Hurry, now."

JD seemed to hesitate, his eyes wide with uncertainty.

Chris put his hand to the back of JD's neck and gave it another squeeze. "Hurry, Boy. Vin needs Nathan. All right?"

JD tore out of the saloon as if fire had been set to his feet. His voice echoed back into the saloon as he called out for Nathan.

Chris looked at the empty, glassy stare of his lover. Vin's blue eyes looked strange. His pupils were larger than normal. "Vin?" Chris softly spoke. He wanted to run...to embrace the young man, but something was wrong. Damn the bastards! They wanted to control everything about this whole ordeal...even the moment Vin returned.

Buck turned to Joe and the other patrons of the saloon. "Everyone out of here now!" he shouted.

They all scrambled out the doors. Joe headed into the back. No one uttered a word of argument, knowing they'd fall under Chris Larabee's wrath if they did so.

Vin gazed at Chris, blinking, and a sluggish smile formed on his battered lips. “Hey. I...know you...don't I?"

Buck furrowed his brow as he watched Vin. The young man acted drugged. "Course you know him, Vin. Remember? You call Chris 'Cowboy'?"

Vin slowly turned to Buck, his eyes widening with recognition. "Cowboy. Yeah," he turned back to Chris. "You're...Cowboy."

Chris wanted to scream in frustration. He reined in his pain at the sight and actions of his lover and took a halting step toward him. "That's right, Vin. It's me. Do you remember me?"

Vin looked at Chris sleepily. "Saw ya'...in a dream. Far away, ridin'." Vin wavered a bit and Chris reached out to steady him, but Vin clumsily backed up a step. "Heard ya'...callin' fer me." He wearily smiled at Chris. "Was I lost?"

Chris took another cautious step toward him. "You were lost, Vin. I was lookin' for you."

Vin gazed at Chris with a flicker of recognition. "Chris?"

Chris forced a knowing smile to his lips. "That's right, Vin. It's me."

Vin's face turned down in a frown. "I...know you." He raised a lazy finger to Chris and wavered again. Vin moved his fingers in front of him. "You're really...dusty, Chris. Your duster...is dusty." Vin gave him a slurred smirk as if he was laughing at his own joke. He looked around him in wonder.

Buck slowly walked up to Chris' side. "What did they do to him?" he whispered.

Chris kept his eyes on Vin as the younger man turned in a circle looking at the saloon. His eyes were wide with amazement. "The room...it's waving at me, Chris." He smiled at the gunslinger. "Building's...moving, Cowboy. Can't you feel it?"

Chris took a cautious step closer to Vin. "Opium," he responded to Buck's question.

Buck pulled his gun and checked the bullet chambers. "If they dropped him off they can't be far. I'm going huntin'."

"Watch your back, Buck. They could be anywhere."

Buck passed Vin who gazed at him with a groggy smile. "Hey. You. Seen any crows lately?" He started laughing, like a drunken man who thought everything was a joke.

Buck gazed at him sorrowfully. "No, Junior. No crows lately." He looked down to see Vin's hands and arms. "Chris?"

"I see them. Go on. I'll take care of him. Get Josiah and Ezra, check the perimeter of the town."

Buck nodded to his old friend and hurried out of the saloon.

Chris glanced down at Vin's hands. What he saw were the scars of rope burns on his wrists. Vin had struggled to keep the drug from entering into him. "Vin?" Chris slowly went up and took his lover's upper arms, gently. There was no telling how badly he had been beaten. All he felt were bones covered in skin. Muscle mass was depleted. He turned Vin's face to look at him. "Hey, Vin," he said with an encouraging smile.

"Hey, Chris." Vin wavered from right to left. He was so drugged up, acting like he was about ready to collapse.

"Vin, who did this to you? Who gave you the opium?" Chris knew it was opium. The smell reeked from Vin's body and the way the tracker acted confirmed it.

Vin chuckled lightly. "Oh yeah," he closed his eyes and stumbled forward a bit. Chris held him steady. "Snow man."

Chris flinched. He remembered his dream a while ago, before Vin had been abducted. "Hey, Cowboy. Snow's comin'." And then the face of a skull greeted him. Then that dream a few weeks before after leaving
Davis
' territory. Vin frozen in the midst of a blizzard.

"
Douglas
says 'hello'," Vin said, gazing at Chris strangely. "The dirt has fingers, Chris. Creeping over your coat." He put out his hand and placed it on Chris' shoulder.

Chris saw the pinholes on top of Vin’s hand. He closed his eyes, knowing just how long they had been drugging him. Probably ever since the day they took him. He lifted his eyes to Vin who was now gazing over his shoulder to the back of the bar. His eyes were wide again, but this time Chris could see something akin to confusion in them. "Hey, Chris? Flames are dancin' on the glass."

Chris glanced over his shoulder to see what Vin was looking at. The candlelight from the chandelier was reflecting on the mirror. "Yeah, Vin. I see them."

"Sure is pretty, Chris."

Chris looked at Vin who gazed at him with concern. "Heard ya'...callin'."
Vin's eyes rolled up into his head. He fell forward against Chris who held his limp form. He went to his knees holding Vin carefully as he laid him on the saloon floor. He kept an arm under Vin's shoulders, while he reached over with his other hand and lifted Vin's arm. Chris studied Vin’s hand. The marks made it look like a pincushion.

Resting Vin's hand down on his stomach, Chris lifted his unconscious lover and held him tightly. He knew what had happened to Vin. He had seen drug addiction enough in the war. Nathan would verify.

Vin was back, and he was alive...but the nightmare was far from over.

+++++
(TBC in Parts 14-15)

Click here to go to parts 14-16 (please ignore the TBC note above.)

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