M7FFA Entry

 

Chains of Memory


by Rita Clark


NOTES: Refers to some incidents from "Inmate 78". The story should be set immediately after "Inmate 78". This was written especially for "my partner and good friend". You know who you are, cowboy. PG for some violence and language.




The merchants in Four Corners always welcomed Saturday, their most profitable day of the week. That was the day most of the small farmers came in for their weekly supplies. Unfortunately, it was also when the ranchers tended to let some of their hands slip off a little early from work and ride into town as well. The farmers bought their supplies, loaded their wagons and returned to their homes. The cowhands made their purchases from the general store then went to the saloon and drank, usually to excess.

As a matter of routine, Saturday evenings found all of the men who Judge Travis had hired to keep order in the town in the saloon as well. Unlike the boisterous contingent drinking heavily at the bar and gambling at the front tables near the piano, they usually occupied a table near the back and drank sparingly.

This Saturday night was an especially busy one. It was the end of the month and also the end of some of the round ups and branding of the new cattle. This was traditionally when bonuses were handed out to the top hands. Most of the men were determined to have a "good time".

Chris Larabee, Vin Tanner, Buck Wilmington and J. D. Dunne sipped their beer and watched Ezra Standish shuffle a deck of cards with his phenomenal skill. Ezra would have liked to participate in a game with some of the cowboys and their newfound wealth, but he knew that Chris would not approve since they were supposedly here to keep order, not to cause trouble.

The two remaining members of "The Seven", Nathan Jackson and Josiah Sanchez had decided to work a little later than usual at the church Josiah was restoring. One of the projects they had started was close to completion and they both wanted to see it to its conclusion. Even though it was past dark they had enough lanterns and oil lamps to work by.

The saloon doors swung open to an unlikely visitor, Jimmy Taylor, the young stable boy. He hurriedly ran in and rushed to the back table skidding to a halt in front of Chris Larabee. He was out of breath and it took him a few moments to deliver the message that had been entrusted to him.

"Easy boy. Catch your breath."

"Yes, sir, Mr. Larabee. But Mr. Sanchez told me to tell you and Mr. Tanner to come to the church right away."

"Is something wrong?"

"Not with Mr. Sanchez or Mr. Jackson. There's another man there though. He's been hurt and he's asking for Mr. Tanner."

Chris gave Vin a raised eyebrow and an inquiring look as he slowly drew in the fragrant smoke from the cheroot he had just lit. He blew the smoke toward the high ceiling of the already smoky room.

"You expecting company, Vin."

"Nope. But I guess we'd better go see who it is and what he wants."

Chris and Vin rose together and donned their hats. The others remained seated. They knew that whatever the situation it would either be handled or they would be called upon in due time. And there was always the possibility that someone wanted the men lured away from their post. Jimmy ran out the saloon doors almost as quickly as he had come in, but Chris and Vin walked a bit slower down the sidewalk and across the street to the church so that they could talk. The church was almost the last building on this side of the street and it had been constructed so that it was a bit removed from the neighboring buildings.

"You think this could have anything to do with Tuscosa?"

"It's likely. I don't have any kin left that I know of. Can't think of who would be asking for me. I guess we'll soon find out."

The old church did not look as rundown at night as it did during the daylight. With the cover of darkness and the soft amber light glowing from the windows you almost expected to hear hymns rising into the night from within. Although since Josiah had begun his work the sound of hammers and saws was usually the norm.

There was a horse standing with his head down by the rail at the church. Both men stopped to examine the exhausted animal. Since Jimmy was standing at the door of the stable within easy hearing, Chris called him over and told him to put the stranger's horse in a stall, unsaddle him and see that he was watered and fed. As the boy led the horse away Vin saw the blood that streaked the saddle and even ran down the horse's side. He pointed the stain out to Chris, who nodded and they went up the steps together.

They found Nathan in the sanctuary of the old building. The pews that he and Josiah had been working on were in orderly rows except for one that was being used as a temporary bed for the new arrival. Nathan was kneeling beside the man, using some rags to apply pressure to what must have been a gunshot wound. Josiah had gone to a back room to get a blanket and returned just as they came in.

"What happened?"

Josiah answered Chris as he spread the blanket over the wounded man and propped his head up slightly with his jacket in an attempt to make his labored breathing a little easier.

"Nathan and I were working when we heard a horse and then we thought we heard someone calling out for help. When we went outside we found him almost falling out of his saddle. We carried him in here until we could see how bad he was hurt. He's been talking, not much sense to it, but he did ask if Vin Tanner was here." Nathan continued, "We didn't want to try to move him to my room until we had a chance to stop the bleeding and see how bad he was hurt. Then he kept asking about Vin. We didn't know if he was a friend or some kin."

"Get a light closer to his face. Vin, do you know him?"

All three men looked at Vin as Josiah held an oil lamp so that the light fell full on the wounded man's pale face. It was a long moment until he spoke.

"I know him."

To their surprise, Vin turned on his heel and began to walk towards the door. He only stopped when Chris followed him and laid a hand on his shoulder gently turning his friend around to face him.

"Well?"

Vin Tanner's face had gone cold and hard. His normally warm blue eyes glinted like ice in the lamplight. It was not an expression that Chris or the others had ever seen.

"Let him die."

This time Chris did not try to stop him from going out the door into the darkness. He turned back to Nathan and Josiah. Their faces were as puzzled as his.




Josiah and Chris stayed with the wounded man while Nathan went to his room to get a bed ready and a few supplies laid out. It looked as though the bullet had stayed in the stranger's right shoulder and it would have to be removed. Nathan said he would stop at the saloon on the way back and get one of the other men to help move him.

Josiah kept pressure on the wound while they waited for Nathan to return. Chris pulled a small table over to the pew and set a lantern on it to help Josiah watch for further bleeding. The wounded man had slipped into unconsciousness. The mumbling and restlessness had stopped and he lay still.

Vin's words and actions had stunned both Josiah and Chris into an uneasy silence. They thought they knew Vin, but this was not the Vin Tanner they had learned to respect as a friend. This was a stranger they had seen walk out of the church and, as far as they knew, ride out of the town.

Nathan and Buck strode into the church with another blanket to use as a make shift stretcher. It would be difficult to get the man up the stairs to Nathan's but they needed to do it now while he was still unconscious. Josiah and Buck got ready to move the patient while Nathan adjusted the blankets. At his word, the man was transferred from the pew and the three made their way out the door and down the street.

Chris remained behind at Josiah's request to extinguish the lamps. He had blown out all of them except the lantern on the small table when he saw a shadow slip silently through the door from the street. He was behind a pew with his gun drawn when the shadow leaned against the open door and spoke.

"I reckon they took him to Nathan's."

When Chris realized that it was Vin who had returned to the church, he holstered his gun and stood up.

"Yeah. He looked pretty bad, but Nathan will do what he can."

"Shame he didn't just die on the trail. Waste of Nathan's time. Now if he lives I'll just have to kill him."

"You want to tell me about it."

"It was a long time ago. I thought he'd gone back east. If I'd had any idea he was around here I would have hunted him down. If someone else has saved me the trouble, well . . ."

"Hell, Vin. What did the man do to you?"

"Long story."

"I've got nothing but time."

Vin went over to one of the pews and sat down heavily. He looked very tired. Chris sat down on the other end of the pew. He noticed that Vin had carefully placed himself outside of the circle of light from the lantern. This was not going to be easy for him.

Vin paused for a few moments. Then he gave Chris a slight smile and seemed to make up his mind about something.

"There's never a bottle around when you need one."

Chris reached into the inner pocket of his black duster and produced an unopened bottle of whiskey. He uncorked it and handed it to Vin, who took a long drink and set the bottle between them so that it was within easy reach of both. Lowering his voice, he began to speak softly. Chris couldn't tell if he was talking to him or maybe to himself.




VIN TANNER'S STORY

"It must have been about three or maybe even four years ago. The hunting was getting scarce and the men I'd been working with just gave up and went on to other things. I was near Ft. Stuart and went there to maybe find some work and get supplies until I could figure out what I was going to do. Winter was coming on."

"It turned out that they had lost their scout to blood poisoning from a cut he got in a drunken knife fight. I went to the commander, Col. William Parker Bradford. Came out from Boston. Tough old bastard. Rich family. Brought his wife and two children with him. The wife wasn't as tough as the husband. She died. Left him with a boy who was in the cavalry with his father and a younger girl. He asked me a lot of questions but he hired me on the spot to scout for him. The money was good, free room and board, and I didn't want to spend all winter in the open."

"Things went pretty well to begin with. Col. Bradford put me with his son, Lt. Francis Bradford. The old man was really kind of rough on him. He expected him to be perfect in everything. We rode together a lot. I think the Colonel wanted me to show him basic survival skills, tracking, maybe practice with his rifle. He didn't like me. Hell, he didn't like anybody except his sister. He tried too hard at everything. Wanted to show his father how good he was."

"A couple of months went by. I planned to stay on at the Fort for the winter and then move on. Col. Bradford was always after his son to do things better, sometimes he brought me into it. How I could ride and shoot and track. Made things pretty touchy between me and the Lieutenant."

"Then I started noticing Bradford's daughter. Mary Katherine. She'd just turned 16 and I know that's pretty young but she'd taken over and run the household for her father and brother after her mother had died. She seemed much older. I couldn't believe a girl that beautiful would even bother to look at me. We started meeting a couple of nights a week after dark. Nothing happened that wouldn't have happened if we'd been sitting in her parlor, but her father would have had a fit and so would her brother."

Vin took another long drink and handed the bottle back to Chris before he continued with his narrative. Chris drank as well and replaced the bottle near Vin.

"We went out on patrol one morning pretty early with just a small group of soldiers. At that time of the year we didn't figure on any trouble, but we still took a look around pretty regular. Lt. Bradford sent everybody but me off in one direction and we went in another. He made some excuse that didn't make much sense. I really didn't care; I just wanted to get the patrol over and get back to my room in the stable and sleep. I had stayed up real late talking to Mary Katherine and I had kissed her for the first time the night before. She was all I could think about."

"We'd ridden about an hour and I was getting really tired. Bradford stopped and pointed to something on the ground. He asked me what kind of track it was. I got off my horse to look and when I stood up to tell him it wasn't anything, he hit me with his rifle butt. Knocked me out cold."

"When I came to, I was tied up. He told me that he knew about me and his sister. He'd seen us the night before. He was crazy. He told me how I was always showing him up in front of his father; how he hated me and seeing me with Mary Katherine was the last straw. He said I was trash; not good enough for her. The whole time he was yelling at me he was hitting me with the rifle or his fists. He kicked me too. Wouldn't listen to anything I said. Finally, I passed out again. When I woke up it was dark. I was still tied up and he was gone. He'd taken everything. Bradford left me there to die."

Vin paused again and Chris pushed the bottle over to him. But Vin only shook his head and painfully continued his narrative.

"I laid there all night in the cold. Couldn't get loose. I figured I was going to die. Then, just a little after sunrise, I heard horses. I thought it was someone from the fort but I was in for a surprise. It was a small group of Indians who rode up and found me. They knew me from the winter before when I had stayed with them for a couple of months. It was a bad winter and I shot game in exchange for a place to stay."

"They took me with them. Rigged up a travois. I was too beat up to ride. Don't remember a lot after that except I slept most of the time. They fed me and kept me warm and patched me up as best they could. It was two months before I could go back to Ft. Stuart."

"When I rode in everybody looked at me like I was a ghost. Bradford had told them that we'd been jumped by some Indians after we split up with the others. He said I'd been killed at the first shot and he went for cover. Then he told them some nonsense about how he held them off for a while but there were too many of them and finally he slipped away after dark. Bradford supposedly went back to find my body but I was gone. They bought his story."

"About a month later, Col. Bradford was ordered back east. He took Francis and Mary Katherine with him and eventually was going to retire in Boston. The quartermaster fixed me up with what I needed. He knew Bradford pretty well and he believed me. I even got all the pay I had coming. That was when I started bounty hunting."




Vin paused again. He finally looked directly at Chris. There was nothing more to say. They sat on the pew in the darkened church and drank until the lantern went out and the first hint of day began to come in through the open door. The hell of it for Chris was that he couldn't tell Vin that he was wrong. The son of a bitch had blind-sided him, beat him nearly senseless and left him for dead in the middle of nowhere.

Chris had the feeling that was the reason Vin had picked him to tell the story to. Of all the others, Vin knew that Chris would understand how he felt about the man who had betrayed him. Vin had seen what Chris had done to the Warden of the work camp where he had endured vicious abuse at the hands of the guards and the death of the equally corrupt sheriff.

"What are you going to do now?"

"I'm not going to go shoot him in his bed, if that's what you're asking. I'm going to ride outside of town and camp somewhere for a few days. I'll come back when I figure he can talk. If he was asking for me and he was already shot then I don't think he was gunning for me. You might want to be on the lookout for whoever shot him in case they decide to finish the job. He left a trail J. D. could follow."

"I'll expect you back within a few days. We'll take watches until Bradford can talk and tell us who shot him and why."

Vin and Chris left the church together. Vin walked diagonally towards the stable and Chris continued straight ahead to Nathan's. Chris thought this might be a long wait.

When Chris knocked on Nathan's door, J. D. answered. Nathan was still with his patient but he had fallen asleep in a chair beside the bed. Buck and Josiah had left to try to get some sleep. Ezra had remained in the saloon. From the looks of the tray on a corner table, the bullet had been removed. The stranger who Chris now thought of as Bradford lay quietly. His right shoulder was bandaged heavily and he was still very pale.

"Where's Vin? Is he all right? Nathan and Josiah told me and Buck what he said. Ezra and Nathan know too. Is Vin really going to just shoot him?"

"J. D., I haven't been to sleep and I've got a headache. Vin's fine. He'll be back in town in a couple of days. You go get some sleep and I'll stay with Nathan until he wakes up."

J. D. reluctantly left. He sensed there was more to this than he was going to be told right away, but he also knew that Chris wasn't going to tell anybody anything until he was good and ready.

Chris sat in the chair at Nathan's desk. He was tired, not so much physically tired but worn out from listening to Vin's story and wondering what in hell had possessed the man who must have known what Vin's reaction would be to hunt him down anyway. His head hurt from the liquor and the anxiety of listening to Vin's account of the results of this man's anger and hate. He nodded in the chair.

"Chris. Chris. It's ok. I'm awake now."

Nathan was shaking him gently on the shoulder. He must have laid his head down on Nathan's desk and gone to sleep. He felt worse than he had before and the headache hadn't lessened at all.

"You look almost as bad as Bradford does. Are you still getting headaches? Let me look at those stitches again."

Chris ignored Nathan's request.

"Bradford. Did he tell you his name?"

"Yeah. That's about all so far. He was too weak last night to say too much after we got the bullet out. Where's Vin? Is he all right?"

"He left town for a little while. He'll be back. He thinks that whoever shot Bradford might follow him here. He promised me he won't do anything until he's heard what Bradford has to say."

"So, we need to watch him until he can tell us why he was shot and what Vin has to do with it?"

"Nathan, Vin told me how he knows Bradford and why he feels the way he does. I don't want to say anything else until we talk to him."

Chris had gestured to the bandaged man as he spoke. Bradford had opened his eyes and must have heard enough of what the two men were saying to know he had found the man he was looking for. "Vin Tanner. Is he still here? I need to talk to him."

"He's not here now but he'll be back. Do you feel like telling us what happened to you?"

Bradford looked at Chris appraisingly. Then even as Vin had the night before, he seemed to make up his mind. Without taking his eyes off Chris, he began to speak haltingly. It almost seemed as though he was making a confession and looking to Chris for judgement.




FRANCIS BRADFORD'S STORY

"I don't intend to make any excuses for myself and for what I did to Vin Tanner. I hated him at first sight. He was everything my father wanted me to be. You would have had to have known my father to completely understand how he made me feel."

"If you're a friend of his, he's probably told you what happened between us. I was crazy back then. I think it must have started with my mother's death. She hated it here. She was sweet and gentle, but she wasn't strong; nothing like Mary Katherine was. My father should never have asked her to come with him. She was a wonderful woman. I worshiped her. When she died, I swore that nothing like that would happen to my beautiful sister."

Chris silently noted the past tense when Bradford referred to his sister. He couldn't help but wonder how that might push Vin even further.

"After a few months of having my father, the Almighty Colonel Bradford, compare me to Vin constantly I had enough. I didn't know what I was going to do, but I knew I was going to do something. Then I couldn't sleep and took a walk the night before a patrol. I saw him with Mary Katherine. That was it. I knew I was going to kill him."

Bradford paused. He seemed to be trying to read the two men. With Chris he got nowhere. Nathan just nodded as if to encourage him to continue.

"I led the patrol the next day. When we were far enough out, I split us into two sections. I took Vin with me. I pretended I saw a track that I couldn't read and Vin got down to read the trail. I rode over closer and when he stood up I hit him with my rifle. He was out cold and I tied him up."

The injured man stopped his narrative again for a few moments. Nathan got him a cup of water and he continued after a few sips.

"I think that was when I really was completely out of my head with rage and jealousy. I beat him with the rifle and my fists until he passed out again. Then I took his horse and supplies and I left him there to die. When I returned to Ft. Stuart I told everyone that he was dead. Shot by Indians. They believed me."

"A couple of months later, my father was ordered to report back east. It was close to his retirement and Mary Katherine and I went with him. She hadn't been the same since she heard about Vin. I was worried about her but I thought that when we got back to Boston she'd be happy again. She wasn't."

"There was an epidemic of some kind of fever in the poor section of the city. We all thought we were safe because we didn't live there. But the servants carried it into the house. The fever was deadly. My father became ill first. Then it was my sister. I helped take care of them both. The best doctor I could find. The best of everything. Nothing helped. They died within a day of each other. I buried them in the family cemetery. I didn't even have a cold that winter."

"I wandered around inside that big, empty house. When my mother and sister were alive it was warm and happy there. Now, there was nothing. I started drinking. A lot. And gambling. I spent most of my time in gaming houses or brothels, usually dead drunk. Someone from the bank finally found me and told me that everything the family had was almost gone. The house and furniture had to be sold to pay my gambling debts."

"I took what was left and just started to wander from one place to another. One day I realized that I had been working my way west ever since I started. I didn't know why at first, then I realized that I wanted to visit my mother's grave once more. Then I would be ready to die."

Nathan glanced at Chris meaningfully and Chris raised his hand stopping Bradford for a moment. Nathan checked his bandage and gave him more water. Bradford nodded that he wanted to continue.

"I still had some money and by this time I'd gotten a little better at gambling. I used the money to keep traveling, always moving. Finally I got back to the Fort. Mother's grave was where I planned to end it. But when I got there something happened. I can't explain it. I just knew what she would have wanted me to do. Make things right. Only I didn't know how."

"I was sitting in on a game at the saloon in Landon. One of the men started talking about Four Corners and the seven men that a judge had hired to watch the town. He said they were all gunslingers. Then he said one of them had been a buffalo hunter. Said he was a hell of a good shot with a rifle. I asked him what the man looked like and he even remembered that his name was Tanner. I realized that Vin was alive. I finally knew what I had to do. Find Vin Tanner and tell him why I did what I did. Tell him about Mary Katherine. Tell him I was sorry. And if he didn't kill me, I'd kill myself."

Bradford paused again and took a deep breath. The effort of talking for so long had almost exhausted him.

"That goes along with what Vin said happened. But we still don't know who shot you or why."

The injured man stirred uneasily on the narrow bed. He glanced at Nathan for a moment, then focused on Chris once again.

"I don't know. I just don't know."

"There has to be a reason."

"The only thing I can remember that was unusual was the man sitting across from me in the poker game. A big man, tall and heavyset. He seemed interested in the story about the gunslingers guarding this town. Then when the other man mentioned Vin Tanner he folded and left the table. I remember it was kind of odd because he had the winning hand."

"I left shortly after he did. I had intended to spend the night in Landon but after I asked directions I decided to start this way. It's an easy road and there was a full moon. I heard something beside the trail and then I was hit hard in the shoulder. I almost fell off my horse but I managed to hang on and the next thing I knew I was in front of a church."

Nathan stopped the interview by getting up to check the man's bandage again and signaling to Chris that he had talked long enough. Bradford closed his eyes and seemed to fall asleep. With his face relaxed from the pain and tension he didn't look as though he were capable of doing the things he had just spoken about, but Chris knew he had beaten Vin and left him for dead. As far as he was concerned, this man's fate was up to Vin now.




Nathan had insisted that he was rested enough to stay with his patient if Chris would have someone bring him something to eat. He advised Chris to try to get some rest as well, but Chris headed for the saloon to find the others. His headache had grown steadily worse and he thought maybe some coffee and food might help him as well. He couldn't afford to be less than alert right now.

Buck and Ezra were in the saloon at their table when Chris entered the dim interior. The remnants of a meal were in front of both men. Chris sat down wearily and signaled to the bartender that he wanted coffee. With the steaming cup came a plate of bacon, eggs and biscuits that Buck had told the man earlier to have ready. Chris looked at the plate in front of him for a moment and made ready to rise again.

"I need to get something for Nathan."

"Josiah should be taking some food for both of them and the other man up to Nathan's room in a few minutes. Better sit down and eat something yourself."

Chris started to make a sharp retort about being mothered but held his tongue when he realized that Buck was right and that his temper was even shorter than usual because his head hurt so bad. Instead he sipped the strong, hot coffee and ate a few bites from his plate. His appetite still hadn't come back from the near starvation he had endured. He couldn't get Vin's story out of his mind, nor could he forget the expression on Vin's face when he told them to let the man die. Chris was worried about the man who had become his closest friend and sometimes the only person who seemed to understand him.

Aside from Bradford and the memories his appearance had recalled from Vin's past, Chris wondered about the other man at the poker game in Landon. The man who had folded and walked away from a winning hand when he heard that Vin Tanner was in Four Corners. A bounty hunter from Texas? Or something else? Was he the same man who shot Bradford?

His thoughts were interrupted when J. D. came in through the bat wing doors and back to their table. He sat down and grinned sheepishly at Buck when he gave him an inquiring look.

"I thought you were going to try and get some sleep after you ate."

"Buck, I tried but I couldn't go to sleep. I wanted to see what was going on. Has anything else happened?"

"Not yet, kid. Maybe after Chris has finished eating he can fill us in."

Chris had pushed his plate away and was just taking a drink of coffee once in a while. He was finding it hard to focus on the others. Shaking his head slightly to clear his vision, he began telling the other men Vin's version of the events of his past. After a short pause he related the story Bradford had told him and Nathan as well.

With his usual enthusiasm in all matters, J. D. broke the uneasy silence that had settled over the group after listening to Chris recount the stories he had heard from both men.

"What do we do now? Should somebody go find Vin and tell him what we know?"

Instinctively, the three men looked to Chris for the answer to J. D.'s question. But this time their leader didn't have a ready plan of action. He sat quietly, his thoughts turned inward.

It was Ezra who sensed that things were not quite right with Chris and began to summarize what they knew as facts and what they could only surmise from bits and pieces of information.

When he had finished, another silence fell over the group. Everyone was in agreement that there was more to this situation than Vin, Bradford or any of them were aware of. They also concluded that the man from the poker game in Landon was probably the key.

"I'm going to find Vin and bring him back to town. By myself."

Chris made the statement and then looked at the others as though he dared anybody to question his decision. Naturally, Buck did.

"Damm it, Chris. You've been up all night. No sleep at all and you've barely eaten. You've never really recovered from that hellhole in Jericho. I've seen the way you're favoring your head where that son of a bitch hit you. Nathan hasn't even taken the stitches out yet. You know he said you might have a concussion. At least let me go with you. The two of us can . . ."

"You deaf, Buck? I'm going by myself. I want everyone else to stay here and watch Bradford and the town in case there's trouble."

Chris had let anger creep into his rough voice. The other men at the table knew what that meant. He wouldn't be budged from his decision.

Chris abruptly pushed his chair back from the table, turned on his heel and stalked out the door of the saloon and directly to the livery stable. The big black horse had not been ridden in two or three days and he was ready to go. Chris had him saddled and was on his way less than an hour after he left the saloon.

Chris had a pretty good idea of where Vin would camp. There was a clearing near a stream in a wooded area not very far from town. He had ridden there with Vin a couple of times since he had come back from Jericho. It had been a quiet place to talk. This site had everything Vin would need for a day or two. He was still not sure what the man who had suddenly left the poker game in Landon had to do with Vin but he didn't like what Bradford had said. Bringing Vin back to town with him seemed to be the right thing to do.

As he approached the small camp, Chris began to get an uneasy feeling that something might be wrong. He made his way through the brush slowly and with more than his usual caution. Then his uneasiness vanished when he heard a few discordant notes on a harmonica carried to him through the still morning air. Since the trees were getting a little thick, he dismounted and led his horse toward the sound.

He came out of the cover of the trees and into the open to see that Vin had made a comfortable campsite by building a fire near a fallen tree trunk. His bedroll was still spread out and he had used his saddle as a pillow. Vin sat on the log with his harmonica in one hand. A tin cup was at his feet and the coffeepot was still on the fire. He turned his head towards Chris as he tied his horse next to Vin's mount.

"Good mornin'." Chris greeted Vin.

"Well, it's mornin' pard but I don't think it's going to be a very good one."

Vin's reply and the sound of a gun being cocked beside his head were simultaneous. Chris had both hands on the reins of his horse as he tied him and he knew he would never be able to draw his gun in time.

"Keep your hands away from your gun."

Chris had no choice but to obey. A man stepped forward from the trees behind him and took his pistol from his holster. Then he roughly pushed Chris in the direction of the log where Vin was sitting.

"Join your friend, mister."

"If I hadn't tried to make things sound all right they would have just shot you as soon as you came into the clearing."

"I ought to shoot you for the way you mistreat that harmonica."

As Chris moved to Vin and sat down beside him, four more men emerged from the cover of the trees. A tall, heavyset man seemed to be in charge. He came to the fire and looked Chris over appraisingly.

Chris studied him in return and he did not like what he saw. The man had a mean look about him. With the look of a natural bully he appeared to be the type to hurt someone just for the pure pleasure of it.

"Will, get the shackles." The big man smiled at his captives. "Two sets. We'll take both of 'em with us. Since Tanner has a bounty on him I'd bet this one does too. Looks like a pistolero to me. And if it turns out he don't, we can always kill him later."

One of the other men brought the heavy iron shackles from his saddlebags and stopped in front of first Vin, then Chris. He fastened the handcuffs as tightly as he could manage around their wrists. It was all Chris could do to submit to being chained after what he had previously endured. But he knew that he could do nothing against five guns. For now.

"We'd better move on before any more of Tanner's compadres show up. Break camp and get 'em mounted. And I want 'em watched. Tanner's worth five hundred in Tuscosa."

Vin and Chris got to their feet. The leader of the bounty hunters walked over and stood in front of Vin. He smiled without humor at the younger man.

"Tanner, you've caused me a lot of trouble. Followed you here and thought I might have a problem with your partners. Decided to wait and see what the situation was 'stead of just ridin' in. Then here you come, ridin' out of town all by your lonesome, and make camp right where we can find you. Kinda sloppy work for somebody who's supposed to be so damm good."

Vin spit out the piece of straw he'd been chewing and contemplated the larger man for a moment.

"Yeah, I'm kinda ashamed of myself. If nothing else, I shoulda smelled you comin', Peterson."

Peterson's reaction to Vin's insult was instantaneous. He backhanded him hard putting his considerable weight behind the blow and Vin fell at his feet. The he drew back to kick Vin with his boot. Chris reacted just as fast. He leaped for the larger man who was off balance and using the short length of chain between the cuffs began choking him. Chris hit him with so much force that they both fell but Chris would not relinquish his hold on Peterson. It took the other four men to drag him off. Two of them held Chris while two others picked Vin up where he had crumpled to the dirt.

Peterson got up slowly. His neck was already beginning to show dark bruising from the links of the chain. He approached his captives with another smile that boded no good for either of them but he stopped in front of Chris this time.

"So, that's the way it is with you two, huh? You take it on yourself to protect the pretty boy? He may not be quite as pretty when I finish with him."

Chris flushed deeply at the implication Peterson was making. He struggled futilely against the men who held him, preparing for whatever revenge the man would mete out. But the larger man seemed to have lost interest-for now.

"Get 'em mounted. We've got a ways to go."

"Ain't you gonna do nothin' to him? He jumped you."

"It's a long ride to Tuscosa. We've got plenty of time to teach them a lesson 'bout how to behave. 'Sides they need to be able to ride."

Vin and Chris were pushed over to their horses. One of the men brought Vin's gear and saddled his horse. When they were mounted their legs were tied to the stirrups with rawhide strips so that they couldn't dismount without being released. One man remained with them while the others finished breaking camp and went for their horses.

Chris swayed a little in the saddle while they waited. His head had hurt badly before this encounter. Now the pain was coming at him in waves and his vision was blurred. When he touched the stitches Nathan had so carefully closed the deep cut with he felt blood trickling down his face.

"Chris, you all right?"

Vin was looking worried. He had pushed his hat back from his face and wiped some of the blood from Peterson's blow away from his mouth. Extensive bruising had started darkening near his right eye and his lip was split and puffy. He spit out some blood and wiped his lip again gingerly.

"I'd say I feel better than you do."

"Thanks for trying to stop him."

"Yeah. I was a lot of help. You know him?"

"Hooked up with him once to hunt a couple of members of a gang that had robbed a bank. We found 'em. He shot two of 'em dead in cold blood after they'd given up and thrown down their guns. They were just boys. Neither of 'em was over 18. I never rode with him again."

"Figures."

Peterson and his men had made short work of putting out Vin's fire and clearing up the site. Soon they were mounted and the bounty hunters and their two prisoners began riding east out of the woods and away from Four Corners.

It was quiet in Nathan Jackson's room. Josiah Sanchez had brought a tray of food up from the saloon and had stayed with Nathan while he attempted to get Bradford to eat. But the wounded man didn't have much of an appetite and he eventually went back to sleep. Nathan ate and Josiah left to return the tray. Now Nathan found himself almost slipping back into sleep.

There was a soft knock on the door and Buck Wilmington stepped in and glanced at the man who had caused all the trouble. He looked pretty young and harmless with his shoulder bandaged. Buck pulled a chair over by Nathan and sat down wearily.

"What's happening now?"

Buck sighed and related the rest of the morning's events to Nathan. He finished his lengthy narrative by cussing Chris for riding out after Vin by himself.

"I ought to just go on out after 'em. I think I know where they are. After we brought Chris back from Jericho he and Vin rode out a couple of times just east of town into the woods where that little stream runs. I think Chris just wanted to be quiet for a while. That'll be where Vin made camp."

"No, Buck. Let Chris bring Vin back to town. He's just not feelin' like himself with that injury to his head. We can all work out what to do once they're back."

"I reckon you're right. Want me to sit with him for a spell?"

"No, thanks Buck. I'll need somebody to take over for me in a couple of hours though. Can you come back then?"

"Sure, Nathan. I just wish I could be sure that whoever shot this man is long gone. I've got a bad feeling about this one."

Buck got to his feet and reassured Nathan once more that he would be back. He had only been gone a short time when Nathan began to nod in his chair again.

It wasn't Buck but Josiah who returned during the afternoon to relieve Nathan for a while. He knocked gently on the door and then entered. Nathan was sleeping peacefully in his chair but, to Josiah's surprise, the bed where Bradford had been lying was empty.

Josiah woke Nathan who was startled and extremely worried when he realized that Bradford was gone.

"Josiah," Nathan began, "He must have heard me and Buck talking. I bet he's going to try to go find Vin. Wonder if he knows more than he told us about the man who shot him?"

"I don't know, Brother Nate. But we'd better tell the others. Looks like we may all be taking a little ride today."




Peterson and the man he had called "Will" rode at the front of the group trailed by Vin and Chris. The other three bounty hunters brought up the rear. They were traveling faster now that they had cleared the trees. It appeared that Peterson was heading for the beginning of the foothills before he stopped to make camp for the night.

Chris had begun telling Vin what he had learned from Bradford as they rode. He knew the others could hear him talking but apparently they didn't care. Vin only stopped Chris once or twice to ask a question. Mostly he just listened. But his face grew hard again when he found out that Mary Katherine had died shortly after she returned to Boston. Vin was quiet for a long time.

"What's the chance that the others will catch up with us before we make camp?"

Vin finally spoke to Chris again after the lengthy silence in which he tried to take in what Chris had told him about Bradford and his family and their fate.

"I don't know, Vin. They'd expect me back by afternoon. If they leave then and pick up the trail they might be able to find us. But I don't think it'll be before we stop for the night. Why?"

"'Cause I've got the feeling that we're goin' to be the entertainment for the evenin'."

Vin smiled at Chris but there was no humor in it. He knew Peterson and he knew he wouldn't let Chris get away with what he had done earlier. Chris merely nodded his understanding of Vin's assessment of the situation.

Peterson signaled for his men to stop and make camp no more than an hour later. It was still full light, a fact that was not lost on Vin and Chris. They camped at the base of the foothills in a small clearing with a few small trees and one large one scattered near a spring. While the other men fetched water and made a fire Peterson sent Will out to backtrack and check for pursuit.

After the rawhide binding them was cut Vin and Chris had been pulled off their horses and pushed down at the base of a tree. Peterson had ordered another set of shackles to be brought and they now wore leg irons as well as handcuffs. Chris watched Peterson as he moved about the camp supervising where the bedrolls were placed and the meal preparations. He knew that he and Vin were helpless to defend themselves if-or when-Peterson decided to "teach them how to behave".

The prisoners were totally unprepared for the rifle shots that suddenly shattered the quiet. The man who was tending the fire fell first, then the one who was just walking up from the spring with the canteens. Both men were dead before they hit the ground. Peterson and the remaining bounty hunter took cover as best they could behind the sparse trees and tried to see where the shots were coming from.

Vin pushed Chris down and to the side and they both tried to roll behind the large tree they had been sitting against. Peterson saw the movement and turned to fire in their direction but the volley from the hillside increased in intensity and he had to duck behind the trees again.

"Who are they?" Chris couldn't see exactly where the shots were being fired from.

"I think it's only one man." Vin had tried to spot the position of the shooter as they took cover.

Then the rifle was silenced and a pistol shot rang out from the hillside and Will shouted down at the men below him, "Peterson, I got him."

"Bring him down here!"

Two men emerged from behind the largest boulder on the slope and half walked half slid down to the camp. Will was carrying his own gun and a rifle and was grinning in triumph at his captive who was having a hard time keeping his balance. His shoulder was bandaged and his face was drained of blood. It was Bradford.

"Damm you. You've killed two of my men."

"I wish to hell I had killed you first. You're the son of a bitch that was at the poker game."

"Yep. And I'm the son of a bitch that shot you when you tried to get to Tanner for the reward before we did. You shoulda left it alone. Now I'm gonna have to finish what I started. As a matter of fact, keeping Tanner and his friend alive is getting to be a problem. May as well just get rid of all of you right now."

Peterson began to smile as he turned his pistol towards Vin and Chris. He raised the gun and cocked it but the hammer never fell. Bradford pulled the derringer that he had concealed in his pocket and his shot hit Peterson full in the chest. Peterson managed to turn and get a shot off at Bradford. The bullet found it's mark and Bradford went down at the same time that Peterson fell.

The remaining two bounty hunters stood in shocked amazement at the sudden turn of events. They didn't have to wonder what to do for long. The sound of riders coming fast fell across the campsite and the remaining members of the seven thundered into view. Realizing that they were outnumbered, the two men raised their hands in resignation at their fate.

Buck dismounted before his horse even came to a stop and was at Chris' side in moments. Josiah followed and went for water from the spring. While Ezra and J. D. checked the men who had been shot Vin slowly made his way over to where Bradford lay, his progress hampered by the leg irons. Nathan knelt beside Bradford and slowly shook his head to Vin. He could see that nothing could be done for him this time.

"Tanner." Bradford was gasping for breath but he wouldn't give up just yet.

"I'm here." Vin looked down at the man he had sworn he would kill. The man he had hated for three years. The man who had just saved his life and the life of his best friend.

"Did Larabee tell you?"

"Yeah. He told me."

"Good. I just wanted you to know the whole story before I died. I didn't think it would be like this but I guess one way is as good as another. I won't ask you for forgiveness, just that you understand a little of why I did what I did."

"I understand."

Bradford took a last deep breath and then he was still. Vin stood over him for another long moment, and then he bent down and closed Bradford's eyes. It was strange, but he almost had a smile on his face. Maybe he was at peace at last.




It had been two days since the incident. After Peterson and the other two men who had ridden with him had been buried they had returned the others to town and they were presently occupying a cell until Judge Travis returned. At Vin's request Bradford's body was brought back with them and he was buried in the town cemetery. A simple cross with his name marked his grave.

Both Vin and Chris had submitted to Nathan's ministrations and Chris, at Vin's insistence, finally admitted that he couldn't understand the severe headaches that wouldn't go away and had begun to affect his vision. Nathan had consulted his medical books and could only assume the headache and vision problems were related to the blow on the head he had taken from the Warden at the workcamp. Once Chris gave in to it and rested the symptoms began to dissipate rapidly.

Vin's heartache was not so easily cured. He sat with Chris in his darkened room while he rested and after a few days when Chris had slept as much as he could they began to talk. Vin told Chris about Mary Katherine. Her blue eyes that sparkled when she laughed. Her thick raven hair that refused to stay pinned up in an orderly manner and was always falling loose while she was cooking or cleaning her father's small but private quarters. How she loved to read and recited poetry to him. Her insatiable curiously about the outdoors and her plans to go with Vin to see some of the land outside of the fort for herself.

"Why, Chris? Why did it have to end like this?"

"Vin, you're asking the wrong man."

"I'm sorry, Chris. I didn't mean . . ."

"It's all right, Vin. I don't have the answers to my questions any more than you've got the answers to yours. Neither of us may ever know. But I've learned one thing. You can't drive yourself crazy always asking 'What if.' About all you can do is just try to go on. Letting go is the hardest thing you'll ever do. But just try to let go of the bad things. Don't forget the good ones. I'm going back to sleep for a while. Do me a favor?"

"Sure, Chris. Anything."

"There's a book in the top drawer of the bureau. It's got a brown leather cover. There's a corner of a page turned down. Josiah gave it to me. Read just the one page if you don't feel like reading any more of it."

"Didn't know cowboys read books."

Chris threw one of the extra pillows at Vin but he ducked gracefully and the pillow merely hit the chair he had just vacated. They both grinned at the old joke that they shared.

"Ok. I'll be back later."

Vin opened the top drawer and found the thin volume. It was so worn that the gold leaf had faded and he couldn't read the title or the author. He put it in his pocket and closed Chris' door softly. Since the day had turned warm he found a chair on the boardwalk near the boarding house so he would be close if Chris needed anything and propped his feet up. For a while he just watched the activity in the street, then he opened the book and turned to the page that Chris had marked. It was a short poem. He read:




Thoughts of the Past This is my hope, this my goal:
To break the chains of memory,
To finally be free
From regret and hate.
To walk unfettered
And meet my fate
With certainty.

--Author Unknown

Vin sat in the warm sunshine for a very long time. He thought about the words he had just read and what they meant for him. He had been chained to the past for too long. The fetters had been just as strong and as real as the shackles Peterson had clamped on his wrists and ankles. But Bradford, the man who he had blamed for his misery, had been the one to break those. Bradford and the new friends he had found along his way. Chris was right. He couldn't ever forget Mary Katherine. But he could forget all the misery surrounding her memory. He was still lost in thought when he heard rapid footsteps approaching. It was J. D.

"Hey, Vin. Whatcha readin'?"

"The story of my life, kid."

"Huh?"

"Never mind. Just a joke. Hey, didn't you want me to take you out somewhere so we could practice a little with my rifle?"

The look of gratitude on J. D.'s face was worth knowing he would have to call upon all his patience for the next few hours. He slipped the book back into his pocket and they headed for the livery. The sun was still shining brightly and they had at least three hours of daylight left. It had turned out to be a good day after all.





  Please post a comment on this story or send feedback to ritalois@yahoo.com.
Read posted comments.


The M7FFA is an archive for fan fiction. Each story or other work available on this archive was created for the enjoyment of the fans with no intention to infringe on any copyright. No profit has been gained from this archive. The specific content of each work is © the original author/creator and should not be posted or reproduced elsewhere without the creator's express permission.