M7FFA Entry


High Bounty

by Robin


I looked around behind me to see if JD was still following. Satisfied that he'd given up the chase, I just relaxed in the saddle and let the horse plod along. I was set for a day of fishing. JD had wanted to tag along but I'd done that once before and he talked so much he scared all the fish away. JD was a good guy, and I liked him well enough, but today, I just wanted to be alone. Just me...and nature...and my thoughts. Better for catching fish that way. I sat on the bank, baited up my hook, and then, just sat back to relax.

The fish were biting like crazy and I was bringing them in hand over fist. Satisfied that I had more than I needed, I started packing up the saddle bags to head back to Four Corners. I took the long way back, through the woods. I'd been out of touch with nature lately and I just needed the tranquillity it would bring me to go that way. It didn't take me long to realize I was being followed. At first I thought it was just JD, but it was more than one horse. I could tell by the sounds of twigs snapping. I decided maybe I might be better off out of the woods and on the main trail so I guided the horse to my right and quickened his pace. Behind me, I could hear my trackers doing the exact same thing. I quickened the horse into a dead run. Behind me, I could hear the running hooves that were tracking me. And when I reached the high road I was stopped short by a row of men on horses pointing rifles in my direction. I looked behind me to see three more riders coming up to cut me off and I looked back at the main troop again. I recognized one of them as Travis Noren...the most notorious bounty hunter I'd ever come up against in my own bounty hunting time.

"Did you think I wouldn't find you, Vin?" he gave me a cold sneer as I looked down the barrel of his rifle.

"Listen, Travis...I know why you're here...but that Wanted poster is a mistake! I never killed that man...you know me better than that"

"You best shut up, boy" he told me coldly. "And save your strength. You're gonna need it before I'm through with you"

He nodded to the men behind him and before I could even react, my arms were pulled behind me and my hands were bound tightly with a rope.

"Lead his horse" Travis demanded.

"Where are we going?" I demanded to know.

"No place you know" was my answer.

The reins of my horse were taken from me and I was lead, completely surrounded, back down the main road away from Four Corners. All I could do was wonder what was lying ahead...


When I saw JD riding back into town alone, I had to almost smile wondering how much Vin had gone through with him before he lost him. JD was a good kid...he just had a tendency to get on everybody's nerves.

"He lost ya, huh?" I chuckled at JD as he came up beside me, dejected look on his face.

"Yeah" JD frowned. "I don't think Vin likes me much"

"Well, don't take it personal, JD. Vin just likes to be left alone sometimes. You gotta respect that...give him his space"

"Yeah, I guess so"

"So where did he lose you?"

"Just past the creek crossing...he was headed up to the cove but I didn't see which way he went"

"Well, don't worry, JD" I slapped him casually on the bad. "Some other time"

"Yeah" he nodded with a sad tone. "Some other time"

I laughed and headed out to the saloon. Just before I went in, something caused me to look down the road heading out of Four Corners. I didn't know why, but I had a bad feeling about something...


Completely surrounded and with no other choice, I rode along with this posse. It became slowly evident to me that the only place we were going was deeper into the woods.

"This ain't the way to Texas" I spoke up quietly.

"We ain't goin' to Texas" Travis stopped his horse and turned to me. "I got my own punishment for you" "Don't I get a trial first?"

"Sure?" he nodded. "Everybody that says he's guilty, raise your hand" I looked around me to see every rider with his hand up. "Guilty verdict"

Travis smiled. "I sentence you to punishment at my mercy.

"That ain't fair, Travis..."

"Well, now, there's not much you can do about it, is there?"

I kept quiet. I knew he was right. If I broke loose and ran, they'd shoot me. If I managed to get control of the horse and break away, they'd shoot me. I somehow had a feeling I might be better off shot, but I was going to take my chances. If I wasn't back in Four Corners by sundown, I knew Chris and the gang would come looking for me. So, if I could just keep myself alive 'till then, everything would be OK...

We rode into a clearing where they had their camp and everybody started getting off their horses. I was pulled from the saddle and slammed to the ground. Then, Travis reached down and grabbed me by the shirt front, pulling me roughly to my feet.

"I owe you, Tanner!" He told me in a cold voice. "I owe you more than I can ever give you...but I promise you, you're gonna suffer to the point that when I hang you, you'll be grateful to be put out of your misery!"

With that, he shoved me backwards into the catch of two of his comrades. I kept my eyes on Travis as he took his pistol out of his holster and doubled his hand around it.

"This," he told me with a glint in his eye, "Is just the beginning"

I was held tight by these two men while Travis came towards me with the butt end of the pistol held high above his head. I tried to brace myself for the blow I knew was coming, but I wasn't prepared enough. The pistol hit me just above the left temple with so much force I was sure he'd cracked my skull. I'd been pistol whipped before, but I'd never felt an onset of pain so fast so severe with any of them. My vision blurred almost at once and I felt my knees turn to jelly. In a matter of second, my legs wouldn't hold me and everything around me was starting to fade. The last thing I remembered hearing was Travis'' voice telling my holders 'you know where to take him' and then everything went completely black...


I leaned on the fence post near the edge of town, watching out towards the woods waiting for Vin to emerge as the sun set behind me. I supposed it was the concerned look about me that caused Mary to come out and join me.

"Something wrong?" she asked me quietly.

"I don't know yet" I told her truthfully.

"You've been standing out here for a long time"

"Something wrong with that?"

"Well, no, but you seem disturbed about something"

"Vin's not back yet"

"Is that so unusual? Vin's been known to take a fishing trip that lasts for days"

"Yeah, but he said he'd be back before nightfall"

"Well, it's not nightfall yet...the sun is just starting to set"

"I got a bad feeling growing inside me, Mary. Something's wrong...I can feel it in my bones"

"So, what are you gonna do?"

"I'm gonna give him until nightfall, just like he said. If he's not back here by then, I'm going in looking for him"

"In the middle of the night?"

"I can track in the dark"

"I'm sure you can but wouldn't you be better off to wait until morning?"

"Morning might be too late...this feeling won't leave me alone...if I wait 'till morning, he might be dead"

I turned my attention back to looking towards the woods...watching....waiting....and worrying.


My head was throbbing when I opened my eyes. Everything around me was still a little bit blurry and I couldn't move my arms. Once I was as awake as I could be, I realized my hands were tied to a tree branch above my head. My feet were on the ground, but my arms were stretched high above my head and bound tightly by a rope. I lifted my head enough to take a look around me. The group was gathered around the campfire and dusk was giving 'way to nightfall. Trying to shake off the effects of the blow to my head, my mind was swirling 'Chris, where are you?' over and over but I wasn't saying it aloud. Once I was completely awake, I realized why I was cold...I'd been stripped of my shirt and was tied in just my jeans and boots.

"I see you've decided to join us" Travis was suddenly in front of me with a sneering grin, holding a rifle in his hands.. "Now that you're awake, your punishments can begin..."

"What exactly am I being punished for, Travis?"

"For making me look like a fool"

"Aw, now, Travis, I don't think I could take the credit for something like that...I kind of thought that just came natural for you"

"You always did have a smart mouth, Tanner...but if I were you right now, I 'd work on keeping it shut!"

With that, he grasped the rifle by the barrel and swung it around to slam the wide, wooden handle into my stomach.

"Oof!" I gasped, the air in my lungs leaping out of my body quickly. But, then, with a half laugh, I raised my head to look at Travis. "That the best you can do?"

"I will KILL you!" he grabbed a handful of my hair and pulled me face to face with him. "But I'm going to do it slowly....so you suffer...so you beg me to put you out of your misery like a dog"

"I don't beg, Travis"

"We'll see about that"

He took the butt of the rifle and swung it up under my chin, slamming my head back against the tree trunk. He finished off by slamming it into each side of my body, rocking me back and forth. I tried to pull my knees up, but I couldn't hang by my arms enough to do that.

"I like you better when you're quiet!" I heard him tell me. "Which you will be...permanently....very soon!"

My head began to spin with the pain searing through the back of it and down into my neck. I tried to look up but everything around me was spinning in circles and I couldn't focus on anything. And then, everything went black again...


The sun wasn't completely out of the sky when I pushed through the swinging doors into Erza's saloon. Ezra was shuffling cards at a table with Buck and JD sitting around him. I walked over to the table and motioned the three of them up to follow me.

"Come on....we're gonna go find Nathan and Josiah and we're goin' after Vin"

"Goin' after Vin where?" Buck looked up at me curiously.

"Where ever he is" I told him. "Come on"

"Wait a minute....if you don't know where he is, then how are we gonna go after him?"

"'Cos I know where he was goin' and if he ain't there or camped near by, then I'm combing every inch of this area until I find him! And when I do, whoever's got him better hope they're gone when I get there...cos if they ain't, they're dead where they stand"

"Damn right!" Buck nodded as he got up to follow me.

"The three of you go find the other two...I'm gonna let Mary know where we're goin'!"

"I didn't know your relationship had gotten to the 'check in and out' point yet!" Buck laughed. I gave him that look that told him he better back off and side stepped me to get around me.

"I'm goin'!"

"I'm gonna tell her where we're headed so that if WE don't come back she'll know where to send somebody else"

"You think it's that serious?" Ezra gave me a concerned look.

"I got a bad feeling about this, Ezra" I assured him.

We went out into the street and they went one way while I went across to where I knew Mary was working late on the paper. I didn't knock, just opened the door and went in. She looked up from the printing press, her hair out of place and falling about her face, and a few smudges of black ink on her forehead and her hands. I almost smiled to see her so unkempt.

"We're going after Vin" I told her quietly. "If we aren't back, at least one of us, by sunup, you send somebody out after us"

"OK" she nodded. Her voice was quiet and concerned. "Where are you headed?"

"Vin was goin' fishin' down the river about 2 miles. We're gonna go see if we can find him and we'll be back...at least one of us...later. You keep a watch on things here, all right?"

"OK" she nodded again. I nodded with a slight tip of my hat and turned to go back out when she stopped me quickly. "Chris!?" she called me back and I turned to her. "Be careful" she told me in a hushed voice.

"That's my middle name, Mary!" I smiled, ripped the door open, and went out back out.

She watched from the window as the six of us saddled up and started out of town with lanterns and guns in search of our seventh member...


When I opened my eyes again, my head was splitting. I felt groggy...and weak. But I was awake enough to see that there were several lanterns around the tree that weren't there before. My arms were starting to feel like rubber and just keeping my feet on the ground was a real effort. The sun was completely gone now and I was feeling the cool night air seep into my skin.

"I see you're awake" Travis made his way over to stand in front of me. "I have a lesson for your smart mouth!"

He never let me say a word, just doubled up his fist and hit me square in the mouth with a force that snapped my head back to slam into the tree trunk again, but not hard enough to knock me out this time. Then he reached out and grabbed a handful of my hair and set to slapping me, left and right, holding my head so it didn't snap to the side with each blow, and leveling heavy blows with the back of his hand. He slapped me until my lip broke open and my nose started to bleed. Then, he released my hair and my head dropped quickly while I tried to catch my breath.

"I'll give you five minutes to recover before we continue" he sneered at me.

Continue? That word just rang over and over in my head. It made me wonder what else they could do to me....and something deep down in my bones told me I probably didn't want to know...


It didn't take us long to get down to the river bed. JD took us to the exact path he had used to follow Vin earlier in the day.

"He lost me right about here..." JD pointed out a clearing. "By the time I got up to those trees up ahead, he was nowhere to be seen"

"OK, but why wouldn't he would have just taken the trail on back down to the river?"

"Because he was trying to lose JD!" Buck laughed.

"Then which way did he take to get there?" Ezra wanted to know.

"Maybe he didn't get there" Josiah commented.

"You're saying maybe somebody cut him off before he got that far? Buck was curious.

"Couldn't have..." I shook my head. "Not out in the clearing like this...JD would have seen them"

"So where did he go from here?" JD wondered.

"Into the woods" I smiled, knowing Vin well enough to know he could get anywhere from any point with his sense of direction.

"He wouldn't go through the thick of the woods!" Buck scoffed. "It's a long way around from here"

"What better way to lose JD?" I asked. "It's worth a try...let's go"

We rode on through the clearing and back into the woods. We hadn't gone far when Buck pulled his horse to a stop and jumped off, putting his face down close to the ground with his lantern shining on it.

"What is it, Buck?" I jumped down beside him. "What do you see?"

"Looky here" he pointed an extra set of hoof prints. "Somebody was tailin' him..."

"Looks like there were two of 'em" I pointed out another set just an armslength away.

"Let's see how far they go" Buck nodded.

We mounted back up and the six of us held the lanterns close enough to see the tracks and follow them. But they didn't go towards the river. Instead, they turned and started up for the meadow. We followed them up to where they stopped and all of us got down to study the tracks around us.

"Looks like there's at least seven or eight of them" Josiah told me.

"Including Vin because I know his tracks...."

"Bounty hunters?" Ezra questioned.

"No bounty hunters would be trackin' somebody clear out here" Nathan shook his head. "This is somebody who's obviously been hangin' around a while and knows Vin's patterns"

"Yeah, but who?" JD was puzzled.

"Don't know" I shook my head. "I ain't heard him name anybody lately"

"The real question is, where did they take him?"

"Well, the tracks don't lead any further up....they lead back down to woods...so I say we start there..."

I mounted back up and the six of started slowly and quietly in the direction of the tracks we were following, paying close and careful attention now as we went...


My face hurt, and I could feel it swelling before Travis came back. He got close to my face and sneered in his coldest voice at me.

"So, where are your friends, Tanner?"

"What friends?"

"Your six friends back in Four Corners" I gave him a suspicious look.

"Yes, you see, I know all about you and your legacy there. If they knew what you really are, they'd be protecting that town from you"

"You don't know what you're talking about, Travis! Your head's been filled with lies. You know me better than that!"

"All I know, Tanner, is there's a $500 price on your head...dead or alive....and I can take you in any way I want...you're at my mercy now"

"You do what you have to do, Travis..."

"Not what I HAVE to do, Tanner...whatever I WANT to do"

He dug his fingers into my sides and turned me around to face the tree trunk. I knew by the pain the seared up through me that something was broken inside...most likely a few ribs. I bit my lip, still swollen and painful itself, to keep from groaning from this new pain. I didn't want to give Travis the satisfaction of knowing he was wearing me down. My body was already getting limp. If I hadn't been hanging from the tree branch, there was no way I would have even been upright at all. My attention was alerted by a loud SNAP behind me. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Travis flexing and limbering up a bull whip behind me...and now I knew what was coming. There was no way I could brace myself because I didn't have any use of my hands. And my feet were going to have to find some way to keep my from pulling my shoulders out of the sockets by hanging limp against this beating I was about to take.

"Let's see what this does for your smart mouth, Mr. Tanner!"

I could hear the whirl of the whip as he launched it towards me....and I felt the burning sting as it cut into my back. This was pain like I had never known in my life. My body flinched and then lurched against the pain that was suddenly ripping me apart. I knew by the fact that he was using just the tip that he was slinging that bullwhip he was so notoriously famous for. And he had decided on a slow, painful, whipping....giving my body time to adjust to each lash before he gave me another one...I gritted my teeth and closed my eyes, trying hard to concentrate on just getting through this...and in the back of my mind wondering where the hell Chris was when I needed him...


We were following the trail on the outskirts of the woods, but everyone of us heard the fainted SNAP! deep into the trees. Horses halted, we secured them so they wouldn't run, blew out the lanterns, and crept on foot through the brush until we could see the glow of lanterns in a clearing ahead of us. Another SNAP! rang out and this time I heard a faint groan ripple through the air...not a loud one...and not a scream....but a groan of pain and discomfort and I knew it was coming from Vin.

"JD...you and Ezra go around that way" I pointed. Josiah...you and Nathan go the other way. We'll surround them so that they have no choice but to surrender"

"And you and Buck?"

"The guy with the whip is mine" I told him coldly.

We stayed low and waited for just the right moment to strike. Just as the leader revved up to deliver a third lash to Vin's back the six of us stepped into their campsite, guns drawn, and surrounded all of them at once. When the whip cut into his back this time, Vin let out an audible cry that made me wince just to think about the pain he was enduring with no defenses. Inwardly, I was hoping he would just pass out so he wouldn't have feel anymore of it but Vin was too tough to give in much.

"OK, boys!" Josiah smiled. "Don't nobody move and you'll live to see morning"

Hands in the air, they dropped their guns and surrendered to their captors. Vin's punisher, however, was not intimidated by us and delivered two more quick blows to Vin's back. On the last one, Vin yelped loudly and I drew my gun on his punisher and I walked towards him slowly.

"Mister, you hit that boy with that whip again, and you die right where you stand"

"You think your gun is a match for my whip?" he sneered with laughter in his voice. Then he drew the whip and quickly launched it in my direction. I felt the sting of the tip dig deep into my arm and my gun flung quickly to the ground just as a shot rang out beside me and the leader dropped to the ground.

"Maybe not!" Buck chuckled, "But it surely ain't no match for mine!"

"Good job, Buck!" I nodded, clutching my hand over my bleeding arm.

"You hurt?" He looked over at me.

"I'll be OK..." I motioned him to follow me down. "Vin's hurt worse"

Everybody secured with ropes and the leader dead on the ground, Buck and I got to Vin just about the same time the other four joined us in the camp. Buck reached up and cut the rope from the tree branch to free Vin while Nathan and I lowered him easily to the ground.

"He's out" Nathan shook his head at Vin's unconscious state. "And he's a mess"

"We should wash these lashes down at the river" I told him. I started to pick him up and carry him over my shoulder but the instant I pulled him to his feet and Nathan realized what I was about to do, he stopped me quickly.

"NO! Don't do that! Not 'till I check him and be sure nothing is broken...no broken ribs or anything! If you carry him like that you can make it worse! We'll make a stretcher and carry him down there!"

"All right...we'll work on that....JD, you ride back to town and tell Mary we found Vin and we'll be back to town tomorrow..."

"Gotcha, Chris!" he went off quickly to go back to the horses and carry the message back to town.

"And bring supplies!" I yelled after him as he darted away. A wave of his hand over his head told me he heard me and he understood...

While JD headed for town, the rest of us worked on making a stretcher...I could hardly take my eyes off Vin, who was lying limp and motionless on the ground...his face badly swollen...bruises on his chest, sides, and stomach...and those ugly, bleeding stripes across his back...


I rode as hard as I could through the night back to Four Corners so I could get back to camp and be whatever help I could with Vin. Mary was watching out the window when I rode up...apparently waiting for news of some kind and worrying about us. She came out quickly as I jumped off my horse.

"Did you find Vin?"

"Yes, ma'am" I nodded. "Chris said for me to come back and let you know that...and to tell you we'll be back in town with him sometime tomorrow"

"Is he all right?"

"He's kind of beaten up. I don't know all the story but somebody was holding him...and they roughed him up pretty bad. Chris said to bring back supplies"

"All right" she nodded. "I'll get them for you, but, I want to go back with you"

"No. ma'am" I shook my head. "I can't let you do that"

"But, I can help!"

"You can be more help getting things ready here for us to bring him back, Mary...please...just help me with the supplies and let me go back. You stay here"

"All right, JD" she nodded finally. "I'll do it your way"

"Thank you, ma'am" I nodded back.

She gathered up bandages, blankets, a couple of tins of suave, a clean shirt and a few other odds and ends Nathan could use to help Vin and then she bundled them all in a knapsack for me. I roped it to my saddle and mounted back up.

"Be careful, JD" she told me as I tipped my hat to her.

"I will!" I assured her, turned the horse, and sped off back into the night...


Buck and I carefully lifted Vin by the shoulders and the ankles to gently place him on the stretcher we'd made while Nathan gave us instructions of where and where not to touch him while we were lifting him. He was satisfied there were no broken ribs and we would do a more thorough exam once we had him to the river. His main concern was to wash those lashes as soon as possible.

"Get your hands under his arms" Nathan told me as I slid my hands under Vin's shoulders. "And lift...don't pull...his arms are already sore from hanging from that branch for who knows how long..."

We got him on the stretcher and Buck, JD, me and Josiah carried Vin while Nathan and Ezra cut a path through the brush down to the river for us. The water would be cool and serve to wash and cleanse the wounds. By the time we got there, Vin was already starting to groan and pull himself out his unconscious state.

"Take it easy, Vin...you're safe now..." I told him quietly. He looked up at me and I let a half smile of assurance slip across my face.

"What took you so long?" he mumbled.

"Well, you didn't leave me a good enough trail to follow" I teased him.

"You're gonna be all right now...you just relax and let us take care of you"

He nodded shortly and closed his eyes, rolling his head to one side. I just let him rest...it was the best thing for him right now. JD came back with all the supplies and Nathan set to putting them to use, checking him over as he went. I sat in the water and held Vin's head in my lap while Nathan bathed the stripes on his back carefully.

"How deep are they?" I mumbled to him.

"Not bad...deep enough to bleed but I think I can fend off infection. I'm more concerned about these bruises...and the head injury."

"What head injury?"

"This one...." Nathan rolled Vin's head carefully to show me where it was matted with dried blood.

"Should I keep him from sleeping?"

"No, he knew who you were...knew what was going on...he's not addled or nothin'...he's OK"

"What about all these bruises?"

"He's got a few broken ribs" Nathan made this observation by feeling around Vin's sides very carefully. "When we get all this washed, I'll bandage him up for that...it'll be OK"

"I wanna find out who that guy was...and why he wanted to hurt Vin so bad..." I stopped short at the sight of Nathan carefully examining Vin's back. "Something wrong?"

"This has happened before"

"What has?"

"This whipping....see these?" he pointed out well healed marks on Vin's back. "These are healed lash marks...this has happened before"


"Uh huh...he's been whipped before...more than once...looks like several times. And look at this..." he pointed to a round red mark on Vin's shoulder, "this looks like a brand of some kind..."

"A brand?"

"Uh huh....like a hot poker or the tip of a branding iron...this was no accident...and see these scars on his chest? Have no idea what those are from"

"What exactly has this boy been through?" I wondered aloud. Nathan only shrugged.

Once the open wounds were as clean as Nathan thought they could be, Vin was awake, and able to get on his feet with help and support and walk back up to our campsite. A clean shirt and a blanket around him, bandaged with suave on his open wounds, Vin sat just glaring at the campfire. I went over to him and sat down beside him.

"How you feeling?"

'I'm OK"

"Nathan was a little concerned about your head injury"

"I been pistol whipped before...ain't no big deal...I'm fine. Takes more than that to do me in"

"You wanna tell me why all this happened?"

"I don't wanna talk about it right now, Chris...OK?"

"I just wanna know what happened"

"I don't wanna talk about it...not right now. It's over and done..."

"Who was that guy?"

"Well, he wasn't a friend, that's for sure!" he almost chuckled at that and I smiled.

"What's going on, Vin? Nathan says you have healed lash marks on your back...have you been whipped before?" he didn't answer...just continued to stare head on at the fire. "Nathan thinks that's a brand on your shoulder...is it?" Again, he just stared straight ahead not really ignoring my questions but more like trying to get a grip on what was going on inside his head.

"I just can't talk about it right now, Chris!" he looked over at me with a look of almost desperation on his face that I would drop the issue.

"I just wanna understand..."

"And you will understand....later. You gotta give me some time with this, Chris. I can't talk about it right now."

"OK, Vin" I patted his shoulder and got up to leave him alone. "But if you change your mind and want to talk, you know I'll listen"

"I know" he nodded. "And I appreciate it. And I will talk to you about all this but you gotta give me some time first"

"Anybody understands about a man needin' time, it's me" I grinned at him and this he nodded at me with a half grin.

I left him there alone with his thoughts and his demons and went back behind him where I was before. Buck came over to me and sat down next to me to talk quietly with me.

"Is he OK?" Buck motioned to Vin.

"I think he will be, given time to get himself together" I nodded.

"Any clues as to what all this was about?"

"Not yet, but he'll tell me when he's ready. Right now, he has to battle his demons himself"

"I guess nobody knows about that better than you do, huh?"

I didn't answer Buck, just nodded sadly. It was something I shared with Vin that I wished I didn't. And I kept watching Vin. He just sat there...almost spellbound by the crackling fire...lost in his own thoughts...or his demons, whichever it was that was hurting him the most right now. He pulled his blanket around his shoulders and drew up his knees, placing his folded arms on them and dropping his head down, hiding his face. If there were tears, he didn't want anyone to know. And I was willing to give him that much to himself. If anyone understood the need to keep some things private, it was me. But I also knew what that does to a man internally...and I didn't want that to happen to Vin. But, a part of me wondered if I wasn't already too late to stop that.

Sun up came and we packed up the camp to leave. We threw the dead leader over his horse tied the others to their horses to lead everybody back into town. While the others packed up the camp, I helped Vin to his feet and to his horse.

"I didn't know the others were with you" he mumbled quietly to me as we went.

"You didn't think I could pull this off by myself, did you?" I chuckled at him. "I ain't that good. You think you can sit a horse? Are you strong enough?"

"Yeah" he nodded. "I'll be OK"

"All right" I nodded. Then, I looked over my shoulder at JD and Ezra rounding up the other men who had been captive all night. "Bring 'em along, JD...we'll take 'em to town and put 'em in jail and call the Marshals to come and get 'em"

"I guess I owe you a little more explanation that I gave you last night, don't I?" Vin gave me a sheepish look.

"You don't owe me nothin' but a thanks" I grinned at him. "Whatever you' re hiding, I respect your privacy. You won't get anymore coaxing out of me. You wanna tell me, you will. You don't, you won't. Simple as that"

"Maybe later" he nodded.

Vin was, surprisingly, in better shape than I expected. Bruised, and battered, but that seemed to be the extent of it...nothing worse that he would have gotten in a good beer brawl. Nathan was pretty satisfied there were no internal injuries...just bruises. He seemed to shake off the effects of the whipping with a surprising ease. Still, back in town, Nathan thought it would be a good idea if Vin just rested and took it easy for a few days...and I asked him to hang around close to town. He agreed, although I felt somewhat reluctantly, and instead of being out of sight and only popping in when you had to wonder where he came from like he usually did, he kept himself in plain sight of at least one of us most of the time. A day or so after we got back to town, I sat on the church steps were Josiah was working, watching Vin working on the wagon across the street from us.

"So, how's he doing?" Josiah asked me, motioning to Vin.

"I don't know" I told him truthfully.

"He hasn't talked to you?"

"Not yet"

"Why was he beaten up?"

"I don't know that, either. He didn't want to talk much about it"

"Couldn't you make him talk?"

"I could" I nodded. "But, a man has a right to keep some things private if he wants to. And I respect that..."

"Eats at him too long it can cause more problems, you know"

"I know that, Josiah" I nodded. "Nobody knows that better than I do. He' ll open up when he's ready"

Later in the day, I stopped by the wagon, where Vin was still working on it, and just leaned against it watching him. He was working on a wheel and he never even looked up at me.

"You need somethin', Chris?"

"I was just gonna see if you wanted any help"

"No" he shook his head. "It's OK. I can handle it. Thanks anyway." he looked up at me now, and gave me a half smile.

"OK" I nodded and started away. But I turned back shortly. "You know, Vin, there's a lot to be said for a man who can handle his demons on his own. Nobody knows that better than I do. But don't let those demons, or the fear of somebody finding out what they are, start to rule your life. Being alone 'cos you got no choice is one thing...being alone by your choice is somethin' else. You got people here who want to help you...take some of the burden off you...if I were you, I'd let 'em help"

"I know what you're saying, Chris" he nodded. "But I just ain't ready to talk about it yet."

"You know where to find me"

I walked on away and left him there alone, hard as it was to do it. But I knew I had to give him his space...Vin was too much like me....and I knew I didn't like to be crowded when I was trying to work something out in my head.

"Did you ever get to the bottom of things with Vin?" Buck would ask me later as we shared at drink at the saloon.

"No, not yet" I shook my head.

"You think he's OK?" Buck's concern was sincere.

"I don't know" I sighed. I honestly DIDN'T know. "I hope so"

"Think he'll talk to you about it?"

"I think so...when he's ready. I know how he feels...I've been there. He' ll just have to sort it out for himself"

"And if he doesn't?"

"If he doesn't" I shrugged, "That's his choice. Ain't much I can do about that"

"I know you're right..." Buck sighed. "But it don't stop me from wishing he'd let us help"

"Sometimes a man has to fight his demons in his own ways before he can release them"

"Yeah, I hear you" Buck grunted and nodded to me.

"He reminds me of me" I told him. "And I don't want him to end up bitter and alone like I almost did. Only saving grace I had was you, Mary, and this town...somebody needing me...something to take my attention off myself. Vin's got this town, but outside of that, he don't have much to take his attention off his troubles"

"Vin ain't like you, Chris. He's more closed up than you ever were. He doesn't let anybody inside much...you used to always at least let me inside your mind"

"That's 'cos you know me and you've known me a long time. You knew how to get inside my mind. I ain't figured out the key to get inside Vin's yet. But, I will"

"If anybody can, you will" Buck chuckled and slapped me on the back as he started away.

I didn't say anything else about it, but I couldn't get my mind off the feeling that Vin had some very serious problems locked inside him...


It seemed to me that every time I looked up, Chris was staring back at me from somewhere...off in a distance...quiet...but there nonetheless. And I knew pretty much what he was thinking...what was going through his mind. He thought I couldn't handle my own problems...he didn't know me as well as he thought he did. At first, his constant watching could bring a half smile to my face...but after time, it started to just make me nervous...trying to figure out what he was thinking...and what did he see? How much was I showing him in my face and in my actions? I liked Chris...and I respected him...but I wasn't afraid of him....because I knew I didn't have any reason to be. Still, I knew he was concerned and it was about time I let him in on what was going on with me. I walked over to where he was standing to lean beside him.

"How about I buy you a drink and we talk?" I told him lowly.

"Sounds good" he nodded.

We went together back across the street to the saloon. I bought the bottle at the bar and Chris and I sat a table in a corner together. It wasn't quiet, but it was private enough for both of us.

"I know you're concerned, Chris. But, really, I'm fine"

"You didn't look so fine to me other day out in the woods when you were tied to that tree"

"Well, that was a different story. I really needed you then. And I was glad you showed up. But, I'm on the road to healed now, so, you don't need to be watching every move I make now, OK? You're starting to make me nervous" I grinned at him.

"OK" he nodded. Satisfied that we understood each other, I tried to gather up some words to start this conversation, but, he decided to help me along with it. "You know, Vin, just because a wound closes over doesn't mean it heals" he told me quietly. And that struck me right where it needed to. I looked up at him quickly.

"I guess you'd know that, wouldn't you?"

"Better than just about anybody else you could talk to" he nodded. "You wanna talk?"

"I do" I admitted, nodding my head. "but, this just ain't that easy for me, Chris"

"I know" he nodded. "If anybody knows how hard it is to let down your defenses and open up your feelings, I do. But, I also know that if you don't, you're leaving yourself open for more trouble" I nodded at him. He was right. And I knew it.

"I never had nobody to listen before" I admitted truthfully.

"I'll listen...but only when you're sure you're ready to talk"

"Maybe it would be better if you just asked me the questions you want to know"

"So, you don't give away too much?" He chuckled. "All right. That's fair. First of all, who was that guy?"

"His name is Travis Noren. He's a Bounty Hunter and he works out of Colorado. We're old enemies from way back...never could stand each other. He always had a chip on his shoulder where I was concerned because I beat him to the punch once and brought in a guy who had been tracking for a long time. After that, he started looking for a way to pay me back...I guess this was his way of doing it"

"Was he gonna take you back to Texas?"

"No...he was gonna kill me. He was gonna torture me until he was satisfied I'd been punished enough and then he was gonna kill me"

"Did you know he was tracking you?"

"He's been tracking me for years...I've always known he was 'out there', somewhere. We've met up a few times in the past"

"Did you know he was in this area?"

"No" I shook my head and glanced down at the ground.

"Josiah says those scars on your chest are from an Indian tribe...most probably Cheyenne...is that right?"

"Yeah" I nodded at him, almost smiled a bit. "He's right. I was about 15 years old and I used to do the Sun Dance with them...do you know anything about that?"

"Yeah, that's where you dance around the may pole until the ropes pierce your body"

"Right" I nodded. "I'm actually kind of proud of those scars, because I was honored they let me participate...so those scars don't bother me"

"OK...what about the brand on your shoulder?"

"Nathan figured that out, huh?" I grinned a little. "No puttin' anything over on you guys, is there?" Chris shook his head with a chuckle. "After my mother died, I went to live with some relative...I don't even remember who he was now...an uncle, I think...and he hated me. He was just sure I was a half breed, even then...long before my contact with the Indians. He used to say terrible things about my mother and he whipped me every chance he got.."

"I guess you're not talking about woodshed whippings, either, are ya?"

"Oh, he gave me those, too" I admitted shyly. But, sometimes he would whip me with a riding crop..." Chris winced and shook his head. "So, when I was about 7 or 8, he traded me to an Apache tribe for a squaw. He saw this Indian woman he wanted and he made a deal with them...her for me and a wagon of food. They're the ones who branded me"

"Why a brand?"

"In case I ran away...or if settlers tried to 'rescue' me...any other Apache tribe would know who I 'belonged' to and where to return me to"

"So, how did you end up with the Cheyenne?"

"When I was 13 I went through the 'manhood' ritual with the tribe. When I passed the test, I was free to do whatever I wanted so I left to go on my own"

"Apache's not good to you?"

"Well, they didn't beat me like my uncle did...the brand was probably the worst thing they did to me"

"So, why did you leave?"

"The old Chief died and there was talk in the tribe of trading off all the whites and half breeds for food and I was afraid of the things that might be coming"

"So, then you ended up with the Cheyenne?"

"Yeah....and I was with the Cheyenne a long time...until I left to be completely on my own. I even had a Cheyenne bride" I told him shyly.

"What happened to her?"

"She was killed by Army soldiers"

"I'm sorry" he told me quietly. "Did you have any children?"

"No" I shook my head. "We weren't married long enough for that"

"I had no idea you had such a rough life"

"It wasn't all bad...just a few incidents here and there" I chuckled.

"Well...thank you for sharing all that with me"

"I'd kind of appreciate it if you didn't tell the other guys...if we could keep this just between you and me"

"Sure" he nodded. "Just tell me one thing, OK? Are there any more

'Travis Noren's' out there looking for you that I should know about?"

"Chris, there's probably more 'Travis Noren's' out there looking for me that I don't even know about!" I chuckled a bit.

"I know it wasn't easy for you to spill that much of your past to me, Vin, but I appreciate your trust" he reached his hand out for me to shake and I gave him the tribe handshake instead.

"I'm a private man, Chris...just like you are..."

"No matter how private I seem to the rest of you, I've always confided things to Buck...I've always had somebody to talk to. I'd like you to think of me as that same thing for you...somebody you can always talk to"

"I do" I nodded. "It's just not easy for me to talk about some things. But, I do appreciate you coming after me...bailing me out when I get in too deep...the only other time I ever had that was when I was with the tribe...tribes look after their own..."

"That must be where you learned it" Chris nodded.

"Now, if it's all right with everybody, I'd like to go back to way things were...you know...not so much under watchful eye"

"Sure" I nodded. "You're OK...I can see that...that's all I really needed to know" he slapped me on the back gently and I got up from the table.

There was really nothing else to be said between us. We understood each other and that was all that was important. I managed to give him a half grin and a slight tip of my hat to him before walking away.

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