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“A Face To The Reason”

By Myristica



Part 14

They lined the catwalk outside the clinic. Four men—each wanting to help Vin in some way. They had all reached out to carry him to the clinic, needing to touch the tracker, needing to verify he was back with them.

Ezra paced. Josiah leaned back against the outer wall, his arms crossed over his chest. JD stood at the window gazing inside to see Nathan working diligently over Vin. Chris was by Vin’s side, holding the tracker’s hand. Chris was living a nightmare, evidenced by the pain in etching across his face. “It’s bad, isn’t it?” JD asked, his voice a choked whisper.

Buck went up to stand behind him, putting a hand to his young friend’s arm. He looked through the window with him. “It’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better, JD.”

“What happened to him?”

“They drugged him,” Josiah replied with sorrow. “Addicted him to opium.”

Ezra shook his head. “We have to get him out of town before the people start talking,” he said.

Josiah lifted his gaze to the gambler. “We can take him to Chris’ shack.” During these last few months, Josiah had been going out to Chris’ shack from time to time, keeping things in order, in hopes that the gunslinger would return and decide to either stay or sell the property and leave.

Buck looked at the preacher and nodded. “That’s Chris’ call, boys, but it’s best to get the wagon ready when he makes it.”

“They’ll need supplies,” JD suggested.

Buck nodded. “You and Ezra get the supplies. Blankets, sheets, food, coffee and sugar. Lots of sugar and coffee, JD. Hear me? Candy and whiskey, too.”

“Candy?” JD asked. “Why candy?”

“Sugar, JD. Don’t ask me why, but it helps.”

“I’ll see to it everything is purchased,” Ezra said. Pulling out his wallet he checked the contents. “Mister Dunne, let us procure what is needed.”

JD nodded once and followed Ezra down the stairs.

Buck looked at Josiah. “I don’t know whether to shed tears of joy that Vin is still alive, or tears of sorrow for what he’s going to face.”

Josiah placed a hand on his shoulder. “Either, Buck. Both are understandable.”

The tall man nodded and wiped a hand over his eyes. “Damn. You know Chris is gonna ride this trip to hell out right alongside him.”

“Would we expect any different from him?”

Buck chuckled, but it was mirthless. “I’ll tell him what we’re planning.” He opened the clinic door and quickly walked inside.

Josiah leaned his head back against the wall. “Dear Lord,” he prayed. “Send the angels to ride with them as they go through the flames.”


Chris looked up to see Buck walking over to him. “Chris, will you be wanting to take Vin to your shack?”

Chris looked upon the pale and beaten face of his lover as Nathan continued to examine him. “It’s still standing?”

“That it is. I made sure of it. Each of us go out there when we need to get away, Josiah kept it up for you.”

Chris nodded. “Thank you, Buck. Yeah, the shack would be a good place to do this.”

Buck nodded. “Josiah and I will get the wagon ready. Ezra and JD are purchasing the supplies you’ll need.”

Chris turned to him. “Don’t hook our horses to the wagon, Buck. You get us out there then ride out. I don’t want Vin having any means to escape once we’re there.”

Buck looked at Chris, and the two friends exchanged knowing looks of pain. “What if you need something?”

“Send someone out every day to see if we need anything. Every day, Buck.”

Buck nodded. “All right, Pard.”

“And Buck?”

Buck turned to him.

“I don’t want JD any where near Vin during this time. He don’t need to see what Vin’s gonna turn into.”

Buck shook his head. “He won’t understand why.”

Chris sighed heavily. “Explain it to him. He can help by watching over the town and loading the supplies on the wagon as we need them.”

Buck nodded. “All right. At least he’ll be doing something that’ll keep him involved.”

When Buck left, Nathan looked up at Chris’ concerned face. The deeply edged worry betrayed the gunslinger’s thoughts more than an actual confession. “What are you thinking, Chris?”

“I’m thinking…they did more to him than what we see. Calder...he...did more to him than taking a whip to his back that day, Nathan. Much more.” Chris locked eyes with Nathan hoping the healer would understand the meaning behind his evasive confession.

Nathan straightened, the understanding clear. “You want I should check?”

Chris looked up at him. “I need to know, Nathan. If they hurt him bad...I need to know.”

The healer nodded with understanding. “Help me turn him over, but I want you to stand outside while I examine him. It’ll be bad enough if he finds out I did this. It’ll kill him if he finds out you witnessed it.”

Chris nodded and helped turn Vin over onto his stomach. He lowered his head and headed out of the clinic, closing the door behind him. Once outside he rested his hands on the catwalk railing. The street was now emptying of people, going home for supper, or to shut down their shops for the night. Dusk came upon them all like a hushed whisper, and Chris wondered as to the symbolism. Night was on its way and bringing with it an unusually cold breeze. He shut his eyes and gripped the railing with ferocious emotion. He had to do what he could to keep his body from falling into the maelstrom of what was happening in that room behind him. His mind was jumbled, still with no answers to curtail its many questions. He watched the people hurry down the street, calling to each other. Strangers to Chris. They had no idea who he was, who Vin was. When he’s better, when this has been dealt with, we’ll be leaving town. I can’t risk Vin coming back here and I don’t want to come back here. Let the town grow into a fucking city, we won’t be here to watch it happen.

The sound of the door opening, pulled his thoughts and attention back to see Nathan standing there, his expression blank. “Chris? You can come back inside, now.”

Chris wasn’t sure he wanted to hear what the healer had to say, but he forced his body back into the clinic. Nathan shut the door after him. “The doctor in this town, he’s real good, Chris. He came here about four months ago when the people started filling the place. No one wanted a darkie to look after them. But he’s a good man. He kept me here as his helper. I picked up things. He’s taught me things.”

Chris looked at the healer expectantly. “Just tell me,” he said, his voice hoarse with fear.

Nathan gazed at his friend with sorrow and pain. It was all there—the inexorable truth. “I’m sorry, Chris.”

Chris felt his knees buckle as all the air was torn out of him. Nathan caught him, helped him to stand. “Easy there, Pard. The important thing is he’s alive. And…due to his drugged state, he may not be able to remember the attacks. There’s also lash marks on his back and legs. Fresh ones. Not enough to have killed him, but enough to know he suffered.”

Chris turned from Nathan and pounded clenched fists against the door. “Calder!” he ground out with a strangled voice. He wanted to shout, to yell, but he forced himself to rein in the desire. The trembling shoulders, the white knuckles of his fists forced Nathan to pull Chris away from the door. He gripped those tense shoulders with a fierceness that made Chris wince with pain. “Listen to me good, now! We have to keep this to ourselves, especially from Vin. If he comes to us with it, at least we’ll be prepared for the news. We can’t let him know we know.”

Chris shook uncontrollably. He turned to where Vin lied on the bed. Pushing himself from Nathan he walked over to the bed and took a seat in the chair beside it. He reached out and put a hand to Vin’s face. “Damn them, Nathan. Damn them all to hell.”

Nathan gazed at Chris who fought to control his emotions. “Let it out now, Chris. Don’t let Vin see you acting this way. Get it out while he’s still under the influence of the drug. I’ll leave you alone. I have to make sure Ezra and JD get all we’re going to need.”

The healer turned to the door. “Nathan?”

He stopped and looked back at Chris.

“No one else is to know. Not even Josiah, hear me? This doctor you spoke of, I want only you to watch out for Vin. Only you, Nathan. I don’t trust anyone else with Vin’s care.”

Nathan visibly swallowed. “He’s going to want to know why I’m not going to be here to help him during the day. He’s just down the street. I’ll let him know once I check on the supplies. As for anyone else knowing about this...” he gestured to Vin. “I’ll take it to my grave, Chris. I swear that to you.”

Chris nodded to him once, and Nathan walked out of the clinic. He waited and heard the latch lock from the other side. This was Chris’ time to grieve over all that had happened. Nathan would make sure no one intruded.


Chris’ trembling hand rested on Vin’s chest. He gazed at his tracker as the tears streamed down. Slowly, gently, he picked Vin up and pulled him close, wrapping his arms around Vin’s too skinny body. He buried his face into Vin’s neck and wept. Without realizing it, he was soon sitting on the bed, cradling Vin as he would a wounded child. He was a man who wept little in his life. His wife and son’s deaths had caused him to break, and never before, or since, had he broken with as much emotion…until now. He lowered Vin enough to gaze down at his face, brushing the filthy hair back. “I’ll get them, Vin. I swear it to you,” he spoke out softly. He pulled Vin close to him again and let out a sob of anger. “I swear it.”

Chris soon began to rock Vin as he held him. Vin would never know of this moment, not if Chris could help it. He would never know how his brokenness was breaking the gunslinger. Stoicism be damned. Chris had wondered where his heart had disappeared to. It was the man in his arms who had chipped away enough of the stone to reveal Chris’ ability to feel once again. Chris had never thought it could happen. He had never thought anyone could rip him apart and cause his mask to fall. But Vin had. Vin was his strength when he faltered, his conscience when anger flared, his center when unbalanced. And now Chris had to be all those things to Vin, but there was one more thing Chris needed to be for him. His avenger. With the news Nathan had given him, Chris’ determination to avenge Vin’s wounds had doubled. There would be hell to pay and Chris Larabee would make sure the flames were searing hot.


Mrs. Potter filled boxes with the supplies that JD and Ezra requested. “My word, there’s a lot of coffee and sugar here. You boys nearly cleaned me out. It’s a good thing I have a new shipment coming in this week.”

“Yes, unfortunately, the ailment that Mister Tanner is suffering requires such amenities to see him through it,” Ezra explained.

“What exactly is wrong with Vin?” the storeowner asked with worry. “I had heard he looked rather ill when he entered the saloon?”

JD and Ezra exchanged glances. Ezra handed her his money as JD took the box of supplies. “He is extremely sick, Mrs. Potter. Mister
hopes to have more information for us soon, but at this particular time we can say nothing more on the matter.”

At that moment Nathan entered the store and removed his hat, nodding to Mrs. Potter. “Ma’am. I came to see if we might need anything more.” He walked over to the boxes of supplies and checked them over. “Good job, fellas. We’ll need sheets and blankets now.”

“I have some in storage for the winter, Mister Jackson. May I bring them up now?”

“That will be right kind of you, Ma’am,” the healer replied.

Ezra gestured to the woman as she entered the back of her store. “I shall assist you, Madam.”

JD and Nathan began to lift the boxes when Buck and Josiah pulled the wagon to the front of the store. “Perfect timing,” the youth said.

Josiah ran into the store along with Buck. “Nathan?” the mustached man asked. “What’s the word?”

“Vin is still sleeping. Chris is with him now. We’ve got to get him to the shack right away before it starts. No telling when the last dosage was given him,” Nathan spoke lowly so as not to be overheard by any passersby.

“Before what starts?” JD asked.

Buck leaned down to whisper in his ear. “Withdrawal, JD. I’ll tell you about it once Vin is settled.”

They continued to load up the wagon as Ezra and Mrs. Potter brought out the blankets and sheets. “That should be enough for right now, Mrs. Potter,” Nathan said. “Oh, also, some buckets and a washtub if you have those on hand? Ezra, how’re you on money?” Nathan started bringing out his wallet when Ezra placed his hand on his arm. “Put it away, sir. I have plenty.”

Nathan gazed at Ezra and saw the look of pure giving in the gambler’s eyes. He smiled at him. “Thanks, Ez.”

Ezra nodded and turned to Mrs. Potter who waved him into the store. “I have lots of buckets and there’s a washtub out back, but you can have them for free. If Vin is that sick I want to help in some way.”

“Mrs. Potter, how gracious of you, but that won’t be necessary. I can offer payment.”

Buck walked up to Ezra, putting a hand on the Southerner’s shoulder. “A box of cheroots, if you would, Ezra. Chris is gonna be needing them. I can help in that?” Buck started to pull out his wallet.

Ezra glanced up at him, and quickly stopped Buck from going through with the motion. What passed between them only they could understand. There was a small smile under the mustache, a twinkle of the brown eyes, and Ezra then understood what Buck was trying to do. Buck was allowing him to do what he could to help, both without interfering, and...without taking advantage of him.

Ezra quickly cleared his throat. “A fine idea, sir. Yes, indeed, Mrs. Potter. We’d like to add a box of cheroots to the list. That I insist on paying for.” He and Mrs. Potter went back into the store and Buck turned to the others. “Always knew Ezra’ gambling would come in handy some day,” he said with a fond smile.

“Never saw him hand money over so fast,” JD said.

“His way of helping the wounded, Son,” Josiah said with a hint of admiration. “God bless him.”

Nathan nodded. “Amen.”


When all the supplies were loaded, Josiah got onto the wagon seat with Nathan. “I take it we’ll be taking the wagon back with us?” he asked Buck.

Buck nodded.

“I’ll go get Chris’ horse,” JD said, and started for the saloon where Chris’ horse was tied. Buck reached out and grabbed his arm, stopping him. “Can’t, Kid. Leave Chris’ horse here.”


“I’ll explain it all to you later, JD. Chris’ orders. Let’s mount up.”

JD went to his horse and mounted along with Buck and Ezra. They then followed to where the wagon approached the clinic.

Nathan jumped down from the wagon. “We’ll need some help carrying Vin down.”

Josiah put the brakes on and climbed off the wagon. “I’m your man,” he said and turned to the others. “You all stay down here, no sense crowding the catwalk.”

Nathan started mounting the steps when he turned and raised a hand to Josiah. “Let me make sure Chris is ready. Wait here.”

Josiah understood and nodded once to his friend.

When Nathan reached the top of the stairs he knocked twice on the door. “Chris? It’s Nathan.”

The door opened and Chris stood there. “They ready?”

“I don’t think any of them will be kept from riding out with us, Chris. Is that all right?”

Chris nodded. “It’s best they all come out. I want to talk to them once we get Vin somewhat settled.”

Nathan studied his friend for a moment. “You all right?”

“Ask me when we get past this, Nathan,” Chris replied; then he turned and headed over to the bed. He proceeded to wrap Vin up with the blankets. Nathan turned to Josiah. “Come on up.”

Josiah mounted the steps two at a time and entered the clinic. He saw Chris lifting Vin off the bed and hurried over to help him. “Easy, Brother. Let me help you.”

“Take his arms, Josiah,” Chris stepped aside giving the larger man his space. Josiah wrapped his arms around Vin’s torso and lifted as Chris took his legs.

Nathan quickly packed a box full of medical supplies. He looked at the bottle of laudanum and removed it from the contents. He checked his supplies for anything that would be considered made of poppy. Nothing. Nodding with satisfaction, he followed the two men out, closing the door behind him. He prayed the new doctor would not need his services in the next few critical days. There was no way in hell he could leave Chris alone with Vin, not with what the younger man was going to face.


Part 15

Chris rode in the back of the wagon, cradling Vin in his arms. The tracker’s head rested limply against his shoulder. Chris kept a hand against Vin’s neck to keep the jarring and jostling of the wagon from moving him too much. He’d look up from time to time to see the others riding behind them, but their presence, though comforting, was a blur to him.

Josiah drove the wagon along the trail leading to Chris’ shack and Nathan sat by the larger man. Hardly any words were spoken between the rest of the seven as they moved over the dusty road. Chris looked down at the still sleeping face and then saw the buckets and washtub. “Have to get you cleaned up, Tanner. You smell like shit,” he tried to laugh, but it was a futile attempt. “Reckon they didn’t care one way or another.” Chris found himself wondering once again who ‘they’ were. Calder he knew for certain, but who in the hell was this Phelps character and this
bastard? God, if only he could put a face to the name. Never mind that now. Vin needs to get well. Once he gets well he can probably tell us more.

JD watched Chris as they rode a few paces behind the wagon. “I don’t understand, Buck. Why won’t Chris let me help?”

“He is, JD. Just…you can’t come out to the shack after this trip.”

“But Vin’s my friend, too. I want to help.”

“JD, have you ever seen Soldier’s Sickness before?”

JD thought the term strange, and he shook his head. “Is that what Vin has?”

Buck nodded. “It’s when a person is addicted to a certain drug like Opium. When the drug is no longer given to them, their body goes through…” Buck shook his head, grimacing. “It’s not very pleasant. It’s gonna be bad enough that Chris and Nathan are gonna be witnessing the withdrawal. If Vin found out we saw him go through it, it’d shame him. Do you want to do that to Vin?”

JD felt his mouth go dry, and his eyes widened. “How bad does it get, Buck?”

Buck sighed, heavily. “Very bad, Kid. He won’t be able to control his bowels, his body is gonna go through terrible spasms, and his attitude…his attitude is gonna change as well. He won’t be the Vin we once knew. Trust me, JD. Vin wouldn’t want you to see him go through that. Stay away for his sake, all right?”

JD swallowed. “All right, Buck. I understand.”

Buck reached out and rested an understanding hand on his young friend’s shoulder. “Chris is just trying to protect both Vin and you, that’s all. He don’t mean anything personal by it.”

JD nodded. “I reckon if it’s gonna be that bad for Vin, it might be best I don’t see it after all.”

“Trust me, kid. I’ve seen it before…and I wish to God I never had.”

Those words coming from Buck Wilmington’s mouth sent a shiver to run down JD’s spine. He suddenly understood exactly what Chris needed from him, and in spite of how much he wanted to help with Vin, he also knew there was no way he could.

“Mister Dunne, I might be able to use your help, and in so doing you would be helping Mister Tanner.”

JD turned to look at the gambler. “How’s that, Ez?”

“I’m not exactly certain at this point, but I am putting together questions that need answers. If you are willing to offer your assistance, I may be able to use you.”

“You just say the word, Ezra,” JD responded with determination.

Buck turned to Ezra and gave him a grin, thanking him without words.

Ezra tipped his hat to both men. “There are other ways to help a victim of such atrocities without keeping a bedside vigil.”


When Vin had been carried inside and laid on Chris’ bed, Nathan began to unpack his medical equipment as the others unloaded the wagon. “We need to get Vin cleaned up before he wakes up,” Chris said. “I’ll get the stove lit and JD, you and Buck bring those buckets and fill them up with water. Josiah, you and Ezra organize the supplies in the kitchen and bedroom.”

With tasks assigned they all set to work.

When the washtub was filled with hot water, Nathan and Chris remained inside while the others waited outside.

When Vin had been stripped of his dirty clothes, Chris piled them in a corner and then helped place Vin in the washtub. Kneeling behind the tub, he rested the unconscious tracker against his chest as Nathan began to scrub him down.

“Bastards never bathed him while they held him prisoner. It’s amazing the whip lashes didn’t get infected,” the healer said as he took some lye soap and began to scrub Vin’s arms. “We need to wash his hair. There’s muck and dried blood,” Chris noticed the healing cuts alongside Vin’s head. “They beat him.”

Nathan shook his head as he cleaned Vin’s legs. “Vin must’ve tried to fight them.”

Chris took another cloth and began to scrub Vin’s face and neck. “He’s still out of it.”

Nathan nodded. “Must have given him the final dose right before they delivered him back to town. Buck and the others didn’t find a trace of who it was?”

Chris shook his head as he wrung the wet cloth over Vin’s head. “They searched from one end of town to the other. Nothing. Whoever they were, they kept to hiding or disappeared.”

“Didn’t anyone see anything?”

“Vin’s been gone a long time, Nathan. Look at him. His hair’s all trashy, his beard, no one would have recognized him. They probably thought whoever it was were just drifters passing through.”

Nathan looked around the kitchen. “We forgot a change of clothes for him.”

“He won’t be needing them, not right now. It’s best to keep him undressed until this thing is over.”

“You’re right. With clothes he’ll probably take off with or without a horse.”

“Anything to keep him from running is the best thing at this point.”

The two continued to bathe Vin. Chris carefully washed Vin’s hair, keeping close attention to the cuts and bruises along the scalp. Nathan heated up some more water to rinse off the soap. “How long do the dosages last?” Chris asked as he wiped the soap from Vin’s forehead to keep it out of his eyes.

“Depends on how much he was given. He could awaken any minute. We did right in moving as quickly as we did.”

At that moment, Vin stirred and moaned. Chris pulled Vin back against him, holding him fast. “Easy, Vin. Sleep some more. Just a little while longer.”

As though in obedience, Vin sagged back against Chris’ chest and continued to sleep. Chris glanced up at Nathan. “That’ll probably be the easiest moment we have with him for the next two days.”

Nathan let out a breath he hadn’t known he was holding and lifted the heated water from the stove. They gently rinsed the soap out of Vin’s hair. “Want to shave him while we’re at it?”

Chris nodded. “Might make him more comfortable later on.”

Nathan pulled out the razor from his bag and the soap. “Figured I’d bring these just in case.”

“You do it. My hands are shaking too much,” Chris said. He wrapped his arms around Vin’s chest and held him as Nathan shaved off the beard. “Damn!” the healer said. “His cheeks are hollowed. I knew it looked like they didn’t feed him much, but seeing his face like this…” he shook his head in disbelief.

“Probably didn’t want food, just the drug.”

Nathan smiled. “Well, he’s looking more like Vin anyhow. Reckon it’s a start.”

Chris reached up and brushed his hand over Vin’s head in a comforting gesture. “I’ll take anything at this point, Nathan.”


Chris covered Vin’s sleeping form, tucking up the blankets close to the tracker’s chin. He brushed the drying hair from Vin’s forehead and found he didn’t want to walk away, he didn’t want to leave the room for fear Vin would be removed from his presence again. Nathan seemed to understand, and he stepped up to the gunman, resting a hand on his shoulder. “I’ll watch him. You go out there and tell them what you want them to know.”

Chris’s eyes stayed riveted on Vin, and he slowly nodded. “He looks so damn helpless, Nate,” he whispered. “Of all the things that occurred to me as to what happened to him…this was not what I expected.”

Nathan said nothing, but gave the blond man’s shoulder another squeeze.

Chris turned weary eyes to the healer and Nathan’s heart sunk. The only strength Chris had left inside him seemed to come from the knowledge that he was going to get Vin through this ordeal, no matter what the cost. “I had Josiah set up a cot outside the room. It’s best we get some sleep as soon as we can. No telling how much we’ll get in the next few days.”

“You take the cot, Nate. I want to be near Vin.”

Nathan smiled. “I didn’t think otherwise,” he responded.

Chris nodded once and headed out of the room.

Nathan took the chair by the bed and sat down. Clasping his hands together, his eyes never left the sleeping tracker.


Outside, Chris stepped onto the porch and closed the door behind him. The rest of his men...his friends...gathered around him, not sure what to say.

“The next few days are critical,” Chris offered. “Those who’ve seen this type of thing don’t need to be reminded of what’s in store for Vin.”

“Will those bastards come back?” JD asked. “This shack is isolated, Chris. They took Vin from here before. You without horses, it don’t set right.”

“I don’t want anyone here, JD. That’s final.”

“Besides,” Josiah put in. “I doubt seriously those bastards will try to take him again. It’s been seven months. They could have killed Vin at any time, but they didn’t. What’s happening now is some sort of sick revenge and it’s directed at Chris.” He turned to the gunslinger. “They wanted him to be returned…like this, so that you could see it happening and live with the results.”

Chris nodded. “Josiah’s right. As for keeping an eye on us, I want one person assigned to come out here and check on us twice a day. One person only. Buck?”

“Morning and night, Chris. I’ll be here.”

Chris nodded. “I’ve checked the supplies and so far it looks like we’ll be well stocked until this is over, but just keep a wagon ready if we need any more.” The blond man looked at Ezra and stepped up to the gambler. “Whatever it is you’ve got planned, Ezra, I’d be obliged if you keep me posted.”

Ezra tipped his hat. “As soon as I’ve worked out the details, sir, you will be the first to know. Of course, I have no guarantee’s what I’m thinking will work at all, but it’s better than sitting around feeling morose.”

Chris managed a smile; then turned to the others. “Even though the actual withdrawal period is less than a week, Vin was severely tortured, and he’s been practically starved. I have no idea what his mental state will be like once this is over. I don’t want to hear any questions about when we’ll be back. We’ll be back when Vin is ready, even if that means weeks…or months. If Vin wants to ride out for good, I’ll be going with him. I don’t want any arguments on that count.”

Josiah shook his head. “None will be given, Chris. We all understand the situation. Whatever Vin needs is the way things will be.”

“Thank you, Josiah. Move out and keep sharp. Watch your backs...and each other’s.” Chris turned and headed back into the shack, closing and locking the door behind him.

The others looked at each other and JD lowered his head. “I can’t believe Vin would want to leave permanently,” he sighed.

“He may not, Kid,” Buck said and put a hand to his younger friend’s shoulder. “But the man is as private if not more so than Chris. Whatever Vin decides to do, if it will help him deal with what happened to him, then it’s best we let him do it. Even if that means he parts company from us.”

“At least if he leaves us this time…Chris will be going with him,” Josiah said.

“And that, sirs, is all that needs to be said about that,” Ezra commented as he headed for his horse and mounted. “Shall we ride?” As his fellow compatriots mounted their horses and rode off, Josiah driving the wagon back between them, the southern man couldn’t put his finger on what was bothering him. Something simply wasn’t right about the way Vin was returned to them. Something that Ezra could not understand, or grasp clearly. Something that pricked at his very common sense and seemed to laugh in his face. I’ll figure it out. Even if it takes me the rest of my life, I’ll figure it out. Not one to shirk off anything that made him think, Ezra set his mind on that ‘something’ and began to peel away the layers of reasoning.




Part 16

Two days later...

Chris gazed out at the sunrise through the cracks between the boards that covered the window to his bedroom.

Vin was restless now, the final nightmarish stage to the withdrawal. Nathan was passed out on the floor in the kitchen, seeking what little sleep he could, so that when the time came he could spell Chris in watching over Vin.

But Vin was a wild horse now, seeking for a means to escape. Not even Chris’ presence could stem the tide of craving still ravaging his lover’s wasted body and soul.

Vin paced back and forth, holding the sheet over his naked body. Edgy, his movements held no real focus, just to move, to keep the body in motion.

Chris listened, watched, sought to help Vin get his mind off the effects as much as he could with conversation, but Vin would have none of it.

“I want the damn drug, Chris!” he shouted time and time again.

Nathan had long since removed anything considered breakable or capable of inflicting damage, but there was one thing neither of them could prevent.

Vin’s hands were a bloodied mess of splinters and cuts after having tried to pound his way through the boards and locked door. Chris had learned to ignore the tirades, pulling Vin back, fighting him down. With his body starved and weak, Vin put up an impressive struggle on a physical level. Many times Chris had to slap him to get him calm enough to maintain some control.

Vin would lie there, breathing heavily under Chris’ weight, blood seeping from the unintended cuts Chris had inflicted on his lips.

“Chris,” Vin would moan. “God, please, can’t you let me go?” The pleas were what did Chris in, least ways in his heart.

Vin begging. Chris had never thought he would ever live to see the day Vin Tanner would beg for anything.

But, in reality, this was not Vin Tanner. Chris comforted himself with the thought that this Vin Tanner was a tainted image. An image that now walked in shadows, where the only source of life and light was a false bliss that beckoned from beyond, promising escape from this harrowing existence he was now forced to endure.

Vin had pulled Chris down to him. “Give it to me and I’ll be yours. I’ll do whatever you want me to do, Chris. I’ll let you fuck me till the cows come home. Till one of us dies. I’ll let you fuck me and fuck me and fuck me.”

Chris had grabbed his wrists and pushed himself off of Vin, pulling the trembling, waif-like body to where it stood on shaking limbs. He’d pulled Vin into his arms and wept silently against the bony shoulder. “I won’t give you the drug, Vin, no matter how much you beg. No matter what you say or do to me. I will not be Calder to you.”

And at the mention of the name Calder, that was when the shell over Vin Tanner’s soul crumbled into nothing and revealed a child within the shadows that Chris ached to reach for and cradle and shelter.

Vin had fought his way out of Chris’ hold, falling to the floor, screaming at the top of his lungs for it to stop. For whatever was haunting his mind to stop. He had crawled to a corner of the room and pulled the sheet around him as though trying to keep unwanted advances from getting too far in the exploration of his body.

Chris could only watch in horror as the man he loved crumbled into a mass of hideous whimpers and muffled sobs.

“No more!” Vin had shouted, tears streaking down his face. “No more! God, please! No more!”

Chris slowly walked up to him, kneeling ad pulling Vin’s broken form into his arms holding him close, tight, aching for Vin to feel or gain strength from the embrace. “No more, Vin. I swear it. That bastard won’t do anything more to you, ever.”

Vin had held Chris tightly, sobbing against his shoulder screaming, “I…just…want it to end!” And then he had succumbed to the comfort Chris offered, “Just let it end, Chris.”

Chris had combed his fingers through the now thinning hair of his lover and wept with him. “I can’t let it end, Vin. The moment you end…so do I.”

And Vin’s soul broke in his arms.

Chris had held him tightly and began to recite poetry to him. Shakespeare. Blake. Donne. Anything to get Vin’s mind back onto words, the once peaceful shelter of Vin’s existence. If anything was going to bring Vin back as whole as he could be, it would be the world of words that had been opened to him before this nightmare began.

Chris would not stop. He hoped Buck remembered to bring the books Chris had requested on his next jaunt out to the shack.


The man rode his rough looking gray up to the jailhouse and dismounted. “Sanchez?” he called out.

Josiah came out, holding a cup of steaming coffee in one hand. “MacAfee. You got my message.”

“Yeah, sorry I was out on a run when you showed up the other day. I hear tell that you need some information?”

Josiah gestured to inside the jailhouse. “Come in and look over a map with me. I need some information you may or may not be able to provide, but until we can find another means of obtaining it, you’re our only source.”

MacAfee, the leader of the workers hired to build the railroad, took off his hat and followed Josiah inside.

The jail at this point in time was empty, except for a drunk in the far cell sleeping off a night of booze-laden dreams.

Josiah gestured to the desk and closed the door after the man Vin Tanner once called friend. He hoped the man would be a friend now.

“I heard tell this was something to do with Tanner?” MacAfee inquired.

“Indeed. I’m glad you made it out here. I know it was a long trail to follow. I’m hoping it’s not too long ago that you can’t remember a few things of when you were in this area.”

“I’ll help in any way I can. I owe Tanner a great deal.”

“Well, if you pay up, I’m sure Tanner will call this debt paid in full. I need to know something from this map.” He pointed to the area MacAfee and his group of Chinese Railroad workers had been in correlation to the town. “I need to know where exactly your Chinese workers obtained their opium from.”

“That wasn’t really my business, Josiah, it was another party on the railroad payroll that procured the opium for the workers. But, I can tell you this. They would head out every other Thursday to do the run and bring it back.”

“Can you tell me approximately where they would pick it up?”

MacAfee looked over the map and made a circle with his finger. “Around here. Close to a place called ‘Shepherd’s Rock.’”

Josiah inwardly groaned at the reference. “Are you certain?”


“Do these men still obtain opium from this location?”

“I believe the pick-up point moved as we did. It would be over here, by the canyon dunes now.” MacAfee pointed again. “But, honestly, Josiah, I have no idea as to the exact time and location.”

“Then your men would head out from the railroad camp due east?”

“Correct. They’d come back from the east, too. Still do.”

“How long does it take them now?”

“About a week’s travel total, there and back. Whereas when we were in this area it only took them a few hours.”

“What about names, have you heard the name ‘
’ mentioned by any chance?”

“No. The man who they pick up from, I think his name was Jones. But I could be mistaken about that. It may only have been the guy my boys pick up from.”

Josiah took a pencil and marked the areas MacAfee informed him of. “Here and here, then?”

“Correct. What’s going on Josiah? What happened to Tanner?”

“Someone wanting to do grievous harm not only to his body, but also his soul.”

MacAfee just stared at him, not wanting to question further but needing to know the answer. “What did they do to him?”

“Soldier’s Sickness.”

MacAfee shut his eyes as remorse flowed over him. “God,” he muttered. “And you want to know who did it to him and who had a supply.”


MacAfee put on his hat, determined. “I’ll ask around, see what I can find out, Josiah. I’ll get back to you as soon as I know anything.”

Before he heard any protest or cautionary advice as to being careful and discreet, he was out the door and mounting his horse. Josiah would have protested, too, except for one thing…he knew MacAfee would never allow such an abuse of privilege within his own men and if one of them was involved, he would find out and bring the low-life to Josiah for questioning. At this point, Josiah was willing to accept any and all help.


Ezra and Buck were at the General store loading up the wagon, when Henry the telegraph operator hurried over waving a piece of paper wildly. “Mister Standish, that response from San Francisco you were waiting for, one of your contacts? They finally came through.”

Ezra who had been actually working with Buck in loading up the wagon, dropped a parcel of food into the back end and grabbed the paper from Henry’s hand. He tore it open and began to read.

Buck was quickly at his shoulder.

“It is as I suspected, Mister Wilmington. We’ll need to ride out to Mister Larabee’s together.”

Buck read the contents and nodded. “Ezra, I don’t know what it is you’re planning, but I get the feeling it’s going to be worthy of your agile thinking.”

Ezra smiled. “Thank you, sir. Let us quickly finish the procurement of supplies. We have some things to discuss with Mister Larabee. But first, I wish to inform Mister Sanchez of what has transpired through this wire. Will you excuse me?”

“By all means. This is one time I’ll forgive you ditching menial labor.” Buck winked at him with a smile.

Ezra groaned. “The plight of the honest soul,” he muttered under his breath as he walked down the street toward the jailhouse. “Where is Mister Dunne, by the way?” he called over his shoulder.

Buck shrugged. “Last I saw, he was heading out to Shepherd’s Rock to tend Marcus’ grave. About an hour ago, I guess. Why?”

“I’m as yet uncertain.” Ezra turned and hurried off, leaving Buck watching after him a sudden wave of admiration flowing through him. What Ezra needed was something to keep his mind occupied, and in this town the only thing that really kept him occupied were his games of chance...and his trysts with Buck on the sly. What Buck was seeing now, was a whole other side to Ezra he had never seen, a side he liked to see and knew was part of Ezra from the beginning. For inside that conniving and seemingly walled up exterior was the heart of a man yearning to help, especially when it came to his friends.

Buck caught himself staring after Ezra and smiling. People passing by would probably wonder at that sly grin on his face directed at the gambler. He quickly straightened and went back to work loading the wagon, but he would definitely remember to thank Ezra proper once this day was finished.

Returning to the job at hand, he remembered the books Chris had asked him to bring. Mrs. Potter no doubt had pulled them from her own personal collection and set them aside as she had said she would. He hurried into the store. “Mrs. Potter, about those books Chris wanted…”


Josiah read the contents of the wire and gaped. “A drug called Heroin to replace Morphine as pain killer?”

“Indeed,” Ezra nodded. “And it’s made out of the same substance as Morphine and Laudanum. And they made Morphine to counterattack the addiction to Laudanum. The problem is these drugs are being made with opium and have the same disastrous addictive effects. My friends in ‘Frisco say that Phelps has sent out quite a bit of opium to this part of the state, and from that I can only conjecture that this new drug was made here.”

Josiah shook his head in disbelief as he read the information over again. “Well, MacAfee said he may know who is supplying the opium to his Chinese workers. Ezra, if we can find the source here…”

“We can put a stranglehold around those involved and have them lead us to the head of the snake.”

“And then we’ll have found
, and Chris can finally find out who is behind this hell.”

“I’m heading out with Mister Wilmington to the shack now. Should I tell Mister Larabee about MacAfee’s help?”

“Tell him everything you can to keep his spirits alive, Ezra. And I’ll tell you right now, my spirits are starting to stir to life just after what we’ve learned today.”

Ezra took the wire and gripped it in a fist. “We’ll have that snake, Mister Sanchez. And we’ll all be holding the damn head while Mister Larabee and Mister Tanner pull out the fangs before cutting it off.”


Chris let the ax fall on yet another piece of wood, splitting it in half, the two pieces falling to the ground.

The sun was high up in the sky, going on one o’ clock and sweat poured off his body. He reached for a towel hanging on a post to his corral and wiped his face and neck down, using the time to process what Ezra and Buck had just told him.

“Phelps had connections to suppliers in San Francisco and as a result established shipments of opium to come here,” Ezra was saying. “And the news of researchers seeking a means to counterattack morphine addiction by creating this new drug only makes the puzzle that much more detailed, but nonetheless the pieces are starting to fit together.”

“And you’re saying it’s this new drug that they addicted Vin with?” Chris asked. He was tired and it was showing in his movements and speech. Low energy levels, barely enough to even chop the wood. He looked close to passing out.

“It is my most logical conclusion, sir.”

“And Josiah is working with MacAfee to determine where the opium is coming from once it reaches here?”

“Yes,” Ezra replied.

“And what will you do when you find out?”

“Come to you with the information, of course.”

Chris had to smile. Ezra was just as intimately involved with this scenario as anyone. Buck was grinning from ear to ear and it was clear the scoundrel was either amused or totally proud of the way Ezra thought.

Not that anyone shouldn’t be. Chris was getting a clue as to what was happening within Ezra as well, and the gambler was turning out to be more of a compassionate man than he probably ever intended to reveal. To the benefit of all involved.

Chris nodded his approval. “Very good.” He turned to Buck. “Did you bring the books?”

Buck gestured with his head to the back of the wagon. “Right on top.”

Chris took in a deep breath. “He’s making it, but…” he shook his head. “I don’t know where he is anymore. His spirit…”

“It will take time, Chris. He was forced into becoming a stranger even to himself. Let him take it in his time, his way. He’ll come around.”

Chris cast Buck a weary and soul-drained expression, and Buck realized Chris was talking about more than Vin losing himself. Vin had lost his connection to Chris.

Buck swallowed. “Let’s get these supplies unloaded, and get back to town in case MacAfee shows up with news.”

But in that moment Nathan’s panicked voice split the air, “VIN! NO!”

And the door to the shack was flung open.

Vin, wrapped in the sheet, ran outside.

Buck broke into a run with Ezra at his side. “Circle him!” Chris shouted. “Don’t let him get away!”

Nathan came stumbling out with blood dripping down the side of his face. “He clobbered me, Chris. I didn’t see it coming until it was too late.”

Vin tried to find an opening but between the three of them closing him in, he couldn’t. Out of desperation he charged through the space between Ezra and Buck, only to get grabbed around the waist by the larger man. “Vin! Stop!”

Ezra drew close, ready to grab onto Vin should Buck lose his grip.

Vin struggled. “Let me go!” he shouted. “Let me go!” he screamed out his agony and desperation.

Chris hurried to his side, his weary soul seeping out of his eyes. “Don’t ease up, whatever you do, Buck. Even if he goes slack. It’ll be a trick. Don’t let go of him.”

“Chris!” Vin shouted. “I want to go! Can’t you let me go?”

“No! I can’t, and I won’t!” Chris put both hands to his face. “I love you, damn it! I’m not going to let you go back into this hell that you’re almost breaking free of!”

Ezra and Buck exchanged concerned looks. For Chris to confess his love for Vin so blatantly in front of his friends, it only proved how stripped of inhibitions he had become. Only severe exhaustion could have brought out such a slip.

“Ezra, see to Nathan,” Buck softly requested.

Buck held Vin tight as he continued to pull against the arms encased around him. “I just want the damn drug, Chris. Nathan has Laudanum. I can use that. I can just take a few sips, that’s all I’ll need.”

“No!” Chris shouted, tears filling his eyes. He gripped Vin’s face hard. “Listen to me, Goddamn it! Listen to me good! You are Vin Tanner! You are Vin…Tanner! Think about your mama, Vin. Think about her if not me, if not the others. And think about Marcus.”

Vin’s struggles eased, his panicked breathing calmed into a steadier rhythm.

“Vin, ease up, Pard. We’re all here, and ain’t none of us going to let you go,” Buck whispered. “Just listen to Chris and hear what he’s saying. All right?”

“My mama and Marcus are dead,” Vin moaned. “They’re not here.”

“Yes, they are,” Chris moved closer and put a hand to Vin’s chest over his heart. “They’re right in there, Vin. And I’m right there, too.”

Chris sought Vin’s soul through the troubled blue eyes. He searched deeper and deeper until he couldn’t search anymore.

And then almost as though he had pierced the veil over Vin’s heart, Vin shut his eyes and let out a wail of agony. “I hate what they did to me! I hate it, Chris! I hate it! I want the drug so bad.” He fell forward, sobbing. “I hate what they did to me.”

Chris took Vin from Buck’s hold. “I know you do, Tracker. I know it.”

Buck stood close in case this was another trick, but he honestly didn’t think Vin was faking the grief coursing through him.

“I need the cheroots and whiskey, Buck. Get them for me, would you?”

Buck nodded. “Right.”

He quickly undid the tarp that held the whiskey and box of cheroots Chris had requested.

Chris eased Vin onto the ground beside the wagon wheel, making sure the sheet covered him. “Give me a cheroot and a light.” He held out his hand to Buck who quickly handed over a small cigar and a match. Chris lit it up and then put the cheroot to Vin’s lips. “Toke on this, Vin.”

Vin, shaking with both weariness and emotion, his eyes red from the tears that were starting to spill over onto his whiskered cheeks, sucked the smoke of the cheroot into his lungs.

Buck popped the cork on the bottle of Red Eye and handed it to Chris who put the opening to Vin’s lips. “Drink it, Vin. Let the whiskey take you where you want to go.”

“From one vice to another, Chris?” Buck asked.

Chris solemnly nodded. “Lesser of two evils in my book.”

Buck couldn’t argue the logic. “Whatever gets him through this bout, I guess.”

Vin swallowed down the whiskey, staring out at really nothing in front of him.

Buck turned to see Ezra ministering to the wound on Nathan’s head. “I’m going to go check on Nathan. You got him?”

Chris nodded, putting a hand to Vin’s neck and kneading out the tension there. “I got him.”

When they were alone, Vin turned to Chris, more tears filling his eyes. And, as though the heavens had said Chris Larabee had gone through enough, the tears were real, the sorrow behind them just as real. “I’m...sorry, Chris. I’m so sorry.”

Chris lowered his head. “No, Vin. None of this is your fault. None of it.” He swallowed, unable to keep his own tears from forming. “I love you, you damn tracker. I just want you to know that.”

Vin leaned his head back. He took Chris’ hand in his and squeezed it. “Give me that dinky little cigar you like so much,” he tried to smile, to joke, but it was a hollow effort.

Chris could see it in the eyes. Though Vin was making it through the worst of the struggle, the battle was far from over.

He put the cigar to Vin’s lips again. “Please just do whatever it takes to get through this, Vin. We can’t let them win. We can’t.”

Vin reached up and shakily pulled the cheroot from his lips. “Calder…he won’t go down easy.”

“Maybe not, but he’ll go down, Vin. He’ll go down.”

The look in Chris’ eyes was cold and forceful. A hint of the glare that Chris Larabee was famous for.

Vin somehow latched onto it and held fast.

(TBC in parts 17-19)

Click here to go to parts 17-19

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