NOTES: Rated G except for bad words. There is some reference to a previous story called
Sticks and Stones. One part won't make any sense if you haven't read
that one. And you who keep buggin me about finishing THAT one, and you
KNOW who you are . . . well, this is it, kiddo! Feedback craved, coveted,
solicited, sought after, but not paid for. Gotta drawn the line somewhere.
Chris watched Billy struggle at casting his line. He finally went
to him, smiling, and silently took him around to a spot by the lake where
he could drop his line directly into a deeper spot in the water. Billy
was having a great time. They weren't catching much, but he knew his
ma would be out soon with something to eat. Chris looked up across the
meadow to see Vin standing beside his horse, watching them. Chris stood
up, drew his arm from under his serape and motioned Vin down to them.
In a few moments, he was standing beside the gunslinger and the little
boy, watching the water with them.
"You wanna fish, too?"
Vin shook his head. "I never fished like that. We waded in after'em."
"Nope. We went after fish with spears. Strip down and get in with
'em." He shrugged. "More work, but as I recollect, we didn't have nobody
bringin' us dinner from town."
Chris followed Vin's gaze up the meadow to see Mary climbing out of
a small buggy with a basket.
"Reckon I better git." Vin picked up Peso's reins and turned away,
but not before Chris grabbed his arm.
"Nice try. You're stayin'. She'll have enough to feed us all, she
cooks like Nettie does."
The two men grinned at each other and waited for Mary to get to the
lake. They spread a blanket and settled in for lunch. They were laughing
and talking when suddenly Vin grew silent and turned and looked north.
Chris followed his gaze again, to see three men standing on top of
the ridge. He could just make out a gun being brought down when he heard
one of them shout and a burning fire hit him in the shoulder. Vin was
pushing Mary towards Peso, firing at the men above them. Then he grabbed
Chris, pulled him to his feet and shoved him up on the horse. He lifted
Billy quickly up to the gunslinger and grabbed Mary by the hand, taking
off for the trees, firing wildly behind them.
Chris concentrated on staying on the horse, keeping a hold of Billy,
and still tried to make sure Vin and Mary were beside them. Vin gestured
to the foothills and kept moving, dragging Mary when she slowed.
They heard voices in the distance behind them, yelling; "Take your
time Larabee, were comin' to git ya!" And laughter. Vin hated it when
men laughed like that. It usually meant someone was gonna die. He looked
up towards the mountain. Vin did what the animals did when they felt
threatened--go up, always up. And he headed his little group towards
They struggled up the shale, keeping to the trees as much as possible,
till they were in a fairly thick stand of pines. Vin pulled Chris and
Billy off the horse. Peso was spent, and he couldn't keep his feet on
the loose rock.
"Put Mary and Billy on the horse and gett'em outa here." Chris gasped
Mary looked at Vin questioningly. He shook his head. "I don't think
you'd make it. Can't take that chance. A little farther up there's a
cave. We'll go up there---you hang onto Billy and I'll take Chris."
He pulled his rifle from the scabbard and hefted it in one hand, putting
his other under Chris's arm and pulling him up. He shooed the horse off,
then jerked his head up, indicating for Mary to follow and they struggled
Vin watched the slope of the mountain for a while, finally sure no
one was following them up to the cave, at least for now. They'd be coming,
though, he was sure of that.
He went back inside the cave and picked up his mare's leg and rifle.
He turned to Mary.
"You fired one a these before, right?"
Her eyes widened, and she shook her head.
"Come 'ere then, I'll show you."
She shook her head, more adamantly now. "I can't."
"Yes, you can. Come 'ere."
He sighed, then turned to Billy. "Come here, Billy."
"No! All right." She pushed the hair back from her face and scowled
Vin turned and walked to the entrance of the cave. He held out the
rifle, showed her how to eject a shell, aim and brace it to fire.
"If they get this close, you ain't gonna have a chance to re-load,
so don't worry about that. This one," he picked up his mare's leg and
held it up to his hip, "This one will scatter shot, so use it last. You
don't have to aim it much. If they get this far, and I don't plan on
that happenin' , stay in the cave by Chris with Billy behind you and
when they walk in, just point it at 'em and fire. It'll stop 'em; makes
a mess, but it'll stop 'em." He paused then to look at her. "You used
one on them men after Nathan."
"I just picked it up because I thought they'd stop. I've never shot
a big gun before."
He studied her for a moment, remembering. He smiled gently and shook
his head. "Don't pick up a gun lessin' you're plannin' on usin' it, Mary."
"Pull Chris up so he's sittin', and he might be ok to handle his Colt.
There ain't many shells left, though, so make 'em count."
"But where will you be?"
"I'm gonna be tryin' to get them to turn around and stop 'em afore
they get this far. I reckon them horses run back to town, so the other
boys'll be lookin for us."
He picked up the guns and walked back into the cave. He had started
a tiny fire, and Billy huddled in front of it. Vin checked on Chris,
who was still unconscious. The blood on his shoulder was all dry, and
Vin was hopeful that once he woke up, Chris would be in good enough shape
to help Mary with whatever would come. Mary perched on a boulder watching
them all uncertainly.
Billy started to put another piece of wood on the fire, but Vin stopped
"No. Just a little fire, Billy, I don't want them men knowin we're
up here. Not yet." He looked at the small boy with scared eyes reflected
in the fire. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a dirty sourball,
attempted to clean it off, then handed it to Billy.
"You ain't afraid of the dragons, are ya?"
Billy looked up at him, and his eyes grew even larger. "D-d-dragons?"
Vin nodded. "The dragons. In the back of the cave. The dragons." He
said it like everyone knew about the dragons back there.
Mary started to rise, angry that he would further scare her son.
Vin went to Billy. He dropped down on his hands and knees and pointed
to the flames. "If you watch the fire, you can see the dragon's breath,
see? Goin' in and out." Billy leaned down to look at the fire with him.
He could, indeed, see the flames moving, to and fro, almost as if . .
. . something were breathing on it. He looked back at Vin.
"It's OK. They sleep most of the time, and if they wake up, you play
them this." He drew his harmonica out of his pocket and handed it to
Billy. "They love the sound of a harmonica. They'll be your friend for
life, I promise." Billy eyed him warily, but he took the mouth harp and
blew into it tentatively. Vin smiled and nodded. "Can you do somethin'
for me, Billy?"
"Go over there and lean up by Chris. It'll help keep him warm. It'd
be a favor to me if you would."
BIlly did as he was asked, and Vin smiled, then he rose and went to
stand outside the cave.
Mary followed him out and they stood silently in the darkness for
awhile, Vin watching the valley below them.
"You're very good with him. Thank you."
"Yeah, well, I know somethin' 'bout bein' a scared little kid."
"You'll be a good father someday, Vin."
Vin looked over at her in the darkness and she immediately regretted
"Yeah, I'll put that on my list a things to do afore I get hung. I
reckon I'd be the same kinda pa mine was--grab me a whole batch a'gone,"
he said bitterly; then he, too, was sorry.
He ran his hands through his hair and rubbed his eyes. He was so tired,
and he could imagine how tired Mary must be.
"I'm sorry, Mary. Don't worry, this'll all work out."
She nodded and went back inside the cave, and he sagged against the
boulder and continued to watch for their pursuers.
Mary thought she had just closed her eyes when Vin came back into
the cave, walking quickly, pulling off his coat and hat. He tossed his
hat beside Chris and gently lifted the colorful serape off the wounded
man, replacing it with his leather coat. He picked up Chris's hat and
motioned Mary outside.
"You stay in the cave after I leave. Put out the fire and keep Billy
real quiet. I covered our tracks, so give me a couple hours and then
come out here real careful and watch for our boys. You'll have to get
their attention, so make sure it's Buck and Nathan and the others afore
you make any noise. Got that?" He pulled the serape over his head, twisted
his hair into a ponytail and pushed it into Chris's black hat, pushing
and pulling at it to get it to fit comfortably.
"Where are you going?" Mary asked, suddenly very scared.
"Takin' the fight to them." He grinned with confidence and began to
move swiftly down the hillside. Mary could see a small cloud of dust
near the bottom of the slope, and she picked up the spyglass Vin had
left on the boulder. It was the men after Chris. She turned and hurried
into the cave, but not before she realized Vin looked exactly like Chris
as he moved down the slope.
Vin ran down the slope, cursing Chris and his choice of hats on his
way. He'd gone several hundred yards downslope when he began to move
parallel to the top of the mountain, casting quick looks downward as
he went. Finally, he rested and waited.
When he could just make out the men's faces on the trail below him,
he stood up. Their horses were having difficulty picking their way up
the shale. He stood for a long time, waiting for them to look up. Finally,
he heard a yell, and one pointed towards him. And he began to run again.
For awhile, adrenaline kept him running, and then determination to
draw the men away from Chris and Mary and Billy. Then he concentrated
on the terrain, trying to remember exactly where the river bisected
the mountain pass. Then he thought about the rocks beneath his feet,
how solid and steady they were, and how easy it was to cover your tracks
on terrain like this. Finally, he thought about how he wasn't ready to
die right now. It startled him, maybe even slowed him a little. Finally,
wanted to live. Then it drove him on. When his legs ached, and he hated
the serape and that damn hat, when he looked down to see the men following
him still and his plan working, he ran on. And on. Until he came to a
large boulder, leapt to the top of it, and saw the river, far, far below.
He was moving so fast, he nearly went over, but leaned back and caught
himself. He knelt down on the rock, placing both hands down to feel the
solid rock below him, turned back and watched for his pursuers. He gasped
for breath, his legs aching, his chest heaving. He calmed himself, and
It wasn't difficult for the men to come after Vin, he was easy to
see in the colorful poncho, and he was on foot while they stayed a horseback.
When they got very close, they left their horses tethered to a few small
shrubs. They were giddy with victory as they closed in on their prey.
Vin waited and watched. He willed his breathing to slow, and finally,
when he could hear them clearly on the rocks coming toward him, he stood
on the boulder and turned away from them. He couldn't let his plan fail
now. He stood, listening intently, watching the water far below. He was
poised and ready to spring forward when he heard the sound he was waiting
for, the sound of a gun being cocked. He started to step off the rock,
when he heard the gun fire behind him, and the laugh of a man in victory.
His final thought was that he had waited just a moment too long before
he plunged headlong to the river below.
The four men rode quickly from the lake to the foothills of the mountain.
The trail hadn't been hard to follow, and since they weren't sure whose
blood they found on the ground near the fishing poles, they were desperate
to find their friends. Nathan flanked Josiah, and JD and Buck rode in
front. They started up the mountain, slowing for the unstable shale,
when JD looked up and pointed.
"Isn't that Billy up there?"
"Yeah, and there's Mary!"
The trail they were following turned off to the east; Buck and JD
stayed on the trail while Josiah and Nathan headed straight up the slope
to Mary and Billy.
Chris opened his eyes slowly and looked at Billy, who leaned over
him, willing him to wake up. The tugging on his sleeve and the insistent
pleas finally worked and Chris came to full awareness. He looked around
the dark cave and down at the hide coat that covered him.
"He went to stop the men."
"The men who shot you. He said they were some men you had trouble
with in Eagle Bend."
Chris remembered. "Where's your ma?"
"Outside. Nathan and Buck and the others are coming."
Chris nodded, and pushed himself up to lean against the rock next
to him. "Get your ma."
Billy ran to do as he was told, and in a moment Mary entered the cave.
"Chris, I'm glad you're awake. The others are coming now."
"Where's Vin?" he asked again.
"He went after those men."
Mary nodded. "He had to. He was afraid they would come up here and
we'd be trapped."
Chris swore and started to rise. He had to pause to gain his balance,
and he looked down at Vin's coat and hat and guns and frowned. He looked
up at Mary, and she bit her lip and turned away.
"He took your serape and hat. He's leading the men away from here."
"Goddamn who?" Josiah's large frame blocked the little light coming
into the cave and filled the entrance.
"Vin. He's going after them fellers who shot me. We gotta---"
"Buck and JD are on the other trail. You stay right here and calm
down. Let Nathan have a look at you and we'll get everybody safe."
Chris pressed his back against the rock wall and pushed up to stand.
"You ain't in no shape to be arguin', Chris."
JD and Buck continued along the trail until they came to a spot where
Buck found two spent shells. They left the horses and walked on up to
the outcropping and looked over. It was along way down to the river below.
There was blood on the rock at their feet, and on another rock about
ten feet down the drop.
Buck looked back towards the horses and then up the mountain slope,
but from where they were they could no longer see Mary and Billy.
"You go on up to where you saw Billy. I'll head down to the river
and see what I can find."
JD nodded. "Those aren't Vin's shells, are they?"
Buck shook his head.
"Get goin' kid." Buck mounted up and turned his grey down the mountain,
moving as quickly as he could, while JD turned his little bay up the
slope towards the cave.
Three hours later, Josiah and JD approached Buck, who sat near the
river bank at the bottom of the mountain. Buck looked up and wordlessly
held a torn piece of cloth out to them.
"It's from Chris's serape. There's more blood down here, and I can't
find anything else. He musta gone over the edge. I think he's gone."
Buck's voice was a whisper, even as JD and Josiah shook their heads.
"Chris is up there in a cave. He's got a bad shoulder, but he's ok.
Buck's face lit up with relief.
"Buck, Vin was wearing the serape. And Chris's hat. He was leading
the men away from the cave where he stashed Chris and Billy and Mary."
Realization set in and Buck turned away from his friends, back to
the river. "We have to find him. Come on, maybe he's down river. Come
on, any of you wanna tell Chris we can't find Vin?"
The men quietly began to move downriver, searching for any sign of
Buck stared into the flames before him in the dark. How could he go
back to Four Corners without Vin? What would that do to Chris? And what
would it do, finally, to them?
When Sarah and Adam died, Buck had stuck with Chris until staying
with him would have meant the end of their friendship. Chris had decided
that he had to go through his grieving alone, and that meant Buck did,
too. But somehow, they had come out the other side of that together.
And part of it had to do with whatever had happened before Buck met up
with Chris again; part of it had to do with Vin.
"Ever'body else left without me, huh?"
Buck heard the soft voice in his head, and thought for a moment he
was losing his mind. Then he began to believe he had heard it--really
heard it. He turned his head slightly, almost afraid to admit the voice
could have been real.
There, on the very edge of the light cast by the fire, swayed Vin.
Buck stared. He teetered on his feet, and his left eye was swollen shut;
hell, the whole left side of his face was disfigured and enlarged. He
held his left arm tightly to his body with his right. Buck was afraid
to move, afraid that the apparition before him would disappear.
"Buck?" Vin continued to sway, and his knees began to buckle. Buck
leapt to his feet and caught him just as he went down. "Buck?"
"Yeah, pard, I'm right here." Buck eased him down closer to the fire,
then spread a saddle blanket out and helped him to sit on it. He pulled
his saddle up behind Vin to prop him up a little, and handed him the
cup of coffee he had been holding only moments ago. The tracker took
the cup in both hands and leaned over it, sipping it gratefully. His
body shook. Buck pulled the torn serape` off of Vin and wrapped both
of his blankets around him. He reclined slightly against the saddle while
Buck rocked back on his heels, watching him. Vin lifted his one good
eye to him.
"Coffee sucks, Buck."
"Glad you think so. I was afraid you wasn't thinkin'a'tall."
Vin nodded. "Chris?"
"He's OK. The others took him and Mary and Billy back to town. They'da
stayed, Vin. We looked all over for ya. Been lookin' for two days. They
figgered you were dead."
"I was." The cup slipped from his hand and he tilted back on the saddle.
His eye was closed; Buck picked up the cup and leaned over him to see
a small smile on his face.
"You ain't dead now, pard."
The night was quiet but for the crackling of the small fire. Buck's
mind raced. He suddenly felt happier than he had for a long time. He
settled in to wait for daylight; to wait for Vin to rest. But Vin wasn't
ready to rest, yet.
"Why you here?"
"Lookin' for you."
"You don't even like me Buck, what differ'nce does it make to you?"
"Hell, Vin, I like ya. Why would you say that?"
Buck was genuinely confused by Vin's statement. Maybe he was in worse
shape than Buck had thought. Finally, Vin spoke, but it was only one
Buck sighed. So that was it. Vin still thought Buck held the problem
with Carlson against him. They'd never talked about that night in the
jail. They'd gone on, like it had never happened, and Buck had all but
forgotten. But Vin hadn't.
"That's over and done with, Vin. Thought you knew that. I don't know
what you done or where you been or anythin' about what's happened in
the past, but I know what yer like now, and that's enough for me. I'll
back you pard, just say the word."
There was a soft sigh from the tired man beside him.
"Yep. Purty stupid, what you pulled to get them fellers away from
A long silence followed, and Buck thought he had fallen asleep.
"I lost his hat, Buck."
Buck laughed out loud.
"I reckon he'll forgive ya. Want some jerky?"
"Nah." He paused. "He remembers her, Buck, when he looks at you. He
don't gotta do that with me."
Buck stiffened. "But that ain't all of it, Vin. There's somethin'
else between you two. Somethin' we used to have, but don't anymore."
"I reckon neither one of us got nothin' to lose."
"Yeah, you both got a death wish, that's for damn sure."
The trackered levered himself up on his good arm, and looked at Buck
with his one good eye. Buck almost smiled, he looked so silly like that,
his head tilted so he could see, and still swaying, unbalanced, even
sitting. He was frowning.
"I don't wanna die, Buck. I ain't afraid to, but I don't _want_to."
He eased himself back down. "But sometimes, I'm tired of living like
"Runnin', you mean?"
He nodded. "Always lookin' back, never ahead. Hell, just once I'd
like to get good and drunk and not wake up in a jail cell lookin' out
a window at a noose."
"So get drunk."
"Last time I got drunk, I mouthed off and my drinkin' buddy nearly
collected on that bounty." He closed his eye and sighed sadly. "I'm
tired Buck, really tired."
"Well, then, why don't you shut up and get some rest?" Buck grinned
at the words; him, telling Vin to 'shut up.'
When the silence had stretched into several minutes, Buck became convinced
he had finally gone to sleep, and with a million thoughts running through
his head, threatening to keep him awake, Buck slept, too.
Chris heard the running feet on the stairs before he opened his eyes.
Nathan did, too. Both of them were struggling to wake up when the door
burst open and before them stood Buck. He walked straight to the bed,
took Chris by the arm, and started to pull him to his feet.
"Stop it, Buck, what the hell are you doin?"
"Got some medicine for'im, Nate. Just stand back and watch." It wasn't
light outside, and Buck blew out the lantern sitting on the table. He
half pulled, half carried Chris to the window, the whiskey on his breath
smelling like heaven to the injured gunslinger.
Buck pointed out the window to the deserted street below. Chris could
see a man on a horse at the hitching rail. As the man looked up, he squinted
his eyes to see Vin. The tracker lifted his arm and waved wildly. Then
he began to yell.
"HEEEY Chris! How ya doin' PARD?" As he waved, he leaned too far off
one side of the horse and began to fall. Buck cursed under his breath.
"Goddamit, Vin! Don't----shit!" Buck dropped Chris against the window
and rushed out of the room. The tracker lay in a heap between the two
horses below as Chris watched.
"What's wrong with him, Nathan?"
"I don't know Chris, but he's alive."
"I think he's . . . ." His voiced trailed off as he turned to look
at the healer. "I think he's drunk!"
Nathan shook his head. "Vin? Noooo, I don't think so."
In the street below, Buck pulled Vin to his feet and dragged him away
from the horses. He was still yelling to Chris, but when Buck pulled
him up, he yelled at him instead.
"DOES HE KNOW I LOST HIS HAT?"
"NOT IF YOU SHUT UP!"
People began coming out into the street to see what the yelling was
about. As Buck pulled him along and up onto the boardwalk, Vin gasped
in pain. Then he turned to Nathan, who had just taken the other side
of him and who was helping Buck support his weight. "SSSSSSh." Vin raised
a finger to his lips, and sent a shower of spit into Nathan's face. "Don't
tell Nathan, 'k? He'll make me stay in bed and drink sissy drinks."
"OK, Vin, I won't tell him," promised Buck from the other side. Together
they dragged him inside and half carried him up the stairs. Chris was
sitting on the window ledge when they struggled through the door. He
stared in silence as Vin entered the room, supported by Buck and Nathan.
Vin grinned at him happily.
"Buck got me drunk."
"I see that."
"He's a true blue pard, Buck is."
"That he is."
The two sober men dropped the drunk one on the bed. Buck pointed out
his injuries. "I think he broke his arm, or his shoulder, he wouldn't
let me touch it, got winged by a bullet, and he hit his head, but it
looks better now than it did. He makes sense, when he's sober."
Nathan nodded, still in disbelief at the scene he had just witnessed.
Vin closed his eye and lay silently on the bed.
Buck looked up at Chris. "I found him. No, he found me. He crawled
out of the river and laid in a cave for two days. Can you believe it?
"He's drunk. I never seen him drunk."
"Yeah, well, you prob'ly won't again, so enjoy it. I'm gonna go put
the horses up." Buck turned to go out the door.
Buck turned back to his oldest friend, one he understood a little
"Thanks, Buck. For everything."
Buck looked affectionately at the tracker on the bed. "Yeah. Just
don't ask him about the hat for awhile, ok?"
Chris nodded. "Wait a minute. What about my hat?"
I was born to catch dragons in their dens and pick flowers
to tell tales and laugh away the morning
to drift and dream like a lazy stream
and walk barefoot across sunshine days.
---James Kavanaugh "Sunshine Days & Foggy Nights"
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