Chris Larabee wandered silently along the sandy, main road of Four Corners, kicking up dust that coated his boots and the legs of his black pants. Vin's sudden disappearance had hit him hard; his anguish lingered too long. His comrades also waited anxiously for the former bounty hunter's return; sweating over the potential of Tanner being caught and hung, or reverting from a lawman back to the insidious job of tracking the wanted and bringing them back dead. Missing a part of the whole, like a right arm, an integral piece had been cut away, and things were not the same. The sorrow of their leader also hurt the others; but only one held a suspicious reason, knowing they would lose Larabee, if the runaway had left permanently.
No one had noticed the departure of the man in the fringed jacket and slouched hat, until he neglected to show up for his nightly rounds. The tall, blond gunslinger's ire had flashed in fury at the disquieting, absentee tracker; but after several days of waiting, and discussions with Josiah and Nathan, his anger turned to concern, then depression, anxiety, and now into frightened panic. The young man had vanished as quickly as he had originally appeared, in a haze of blowing sand across a busy street. Larabee's usual stoic, uncaring heart died as slowly as the months that ebbed away, and he had no justification for his emotional state over Vin's unexplained need for a vision quest. In his duress, Chris' daily routine became one of solitary work, endlessly patrolling the far reaches around Four Corners, asking anyone and everyone if they had seen the long-haired runaway. He scoured the entire countryside for traces of the man, but if Tanner wanted to disappear, he could, and no one would find him.
Visiting the closest native village, having briefly made acquaintances of a few of the inhabitants, he received a few obscure hints, from Sha-nu and his father, on where and what a vision quest entailed. With a similar explanation from Josiah, the locals provided Larabee hope with what had transpired between the tracker and their Shaman. Tanner had entered the village alone and asked where he could obtain jimsonweed, a highly poisonous plant that grew wild. The answer had disturbed the young man, hearing the Hopi his best source. Sha-nu recalled Vin shaking his head, stating it too far out of his way, and believing he could find it elsewhere. Thanking them politely, the loner headed southeast, not to return to the village. On one snippet of information, Chris Larabee wavered with thoughts of chasing down the runaway, particularly at the thought of a friend intentionally ingesting poison; but Nathan and Josiah assured him that was not the intent of a vision quest.
Weeks and months dragged on; a cold February turned to spring; and April burst forth in new fresh green. To keep his mind from derailing, Larabee turned his cabin into a house that did not feel like home. Increasing the size and changing the structural method, of his once small shack, kept him occupied when not wandering and looking, while creating a refuge from worried friends. He continued sending telegrams, letters, any type of communiqué that could help locate someone whose expertise enabled him to cover his tracks. Receiving only negative responses, the gunman realized his efforts were fruitless, considering the number of lawmen and bounty hunters, east of Four Corners, also searched for Tanner's elusive trail. The $500 bounty, on the accused culprit's head, could not be ignored by the greedy and unscrupulous, whether brought to justice 'alive' or slung over a horse 'dead'.
Mary Travis tried consoling Chris, as did his old friend, Buck Wilmington, who hovered too close to another loner and drifter. Shunned with silence and steely-eyed stares that could kill, they were losing him, just as they had Vin, with no explanation, no reason, and no hope. With the scene set, the remaining five waited endlessly to see if their leader would leave them all behind, not on a vision quest, but in search of something more precious: friendship.
Late May, and at the end of his tether, Chris finally realized his young friend was gone: either dead, in prison, or surviving quietly alone, wherever that may be. The gunfighter mourned another devastating loss, until the day Sha-nu unexpectedly and dangerously rode into town and out to the Larabee property. The young native, Vin had saved, had come up with an idea--an obscure one--but still a possibility. He first handed the man, dressed in black, a special item Tanner had given them in exchange for a fine pale horse. An interesting twist meant the tracker would be traveling a long distance, needing a second horse to change every few hours. One animal would rest without weight, while the other carried the rider and very few supplies. Larabee immediately offered another exchange for the spyglass; one Sha-nu and his people required more than seeing far into a vast landscape few entered. The younger man gratefully accepted the oats and riding gear for the strange object, and continued his thoughts on the trail the tracker may have taken.
Tanner had admitted living with the Comanche and Kiowa for part of his life and raised in their ways; and both nations made a yearly pilgrimage, in the spring, to gather the buttons off the peyote cactus. Sha-nu knew of the sacred plant, which his own Shaman used, and had heard the stories of where to find it, although his band obtained it through trade. Peyote grew wild from Fort Stockton, straight south through the Big Bend area of Texas, ending far south into the desolate mountains and deserts of Eastern and Central Mexico. Chewing and swallowing the buds created visions, both beautiful and horrifying. Chris had experimented with the unexplainable plant, in his youth, and remembered the effects created. With great respect for those who used it, Larabee listened to Sha-nu who thought the gunslinger should know the association between the visionary cactus, the sweet-scented sophora tree, the dangerous jimsonweed, and their connection with vision quests. Even though the jimson rated as highly poisonous, a little of its dried leaves and twigs could be mixed with natural tobacco, and if smoked while chewing peyote, the effects would greatly intensify. An important trail etched in Larabee's head: wherever you found sophora, also known as the mescal tree or Texas Mountain Laurel, you would surely find the small peyote cactus growing beneath it, while the jimsonweed and wild tobacco could be harvested or purchased en-route. Perhaps, Vin's native training included this concoction of toxic plants, and thus his interest in the weed. A vision quest would certainly point to the ritualistic eating of peyote buttons; and with only a fragment of information, the gunslinger packed up and headed into Four Corners.
Josiah and Nathan agreed it might be the gunman's only chance of finding their friend. The best prospect proposed was for Chris to ride south, ignoring Texas entirely, as it deemed unlikely that the tracker would venture too close to a border where his likeness hung on every tree and in every sheriff's office. Larabee took comfort that Vin was a smart man who could elude those searching for him by heading straight south into Old Mexico. Pulling back his shoulders and breathing deeply, a determined blond-haired man purchased a second sound horse, mounted his favored black gelding, and left the small town, with the echoes of five men saying 'good-bye'. Just before leaving, the youngest member of the group asked his leader to grant him a promise, while the eldest made a secret one to Larabee. They all wished the strained and overwrought legend luck, and with renewed hope, Chris Larabee rode out to find his friend: the man who kept him sane and stable, the man he needed beside him; the man he thought understood his thoughts and ways.
The lonely sojourn took unexpected months of searching, but Larabee rode onward, heading straight south across the border and veering southeast, until reaching the Texas border marked by the Rio Bravo. Remaining on the Mexican side, he skirted the river until reaching its southern point before the river turned north. The Sierra Madre Oriental Mountains loomed before him, but he continued his search, venturing further and further south, keeping to the base of the mountains and on the desert floor where he slowly and methodically scoured for the telltale sacred trees and cactus. Passing through several Mexican villages gave him no hope, nor the members of different bands that always found him first. With limited Spanish, he used sign language and renderings in the sand to communicate, but still no one recalled seeing a man of Tanner's description or his two horses. Larabee, however, sensed drawing nearer to his lost friend, feeling Vin's presence, but not knowing how or why. Trusting his intuition, which overcame him whenever the tracker approached, he continued in anticipation, remembering the moment the two men had first made eye contact. With but a few words, the younger man had joined him in spirit, taking action to save Nathan Jackson from an unjustified hanging; but somewhere, along their journey, they had drifted apart. The gunslinger had to find out why.
Devastatingly hot for a man dressed in black, he refused to turn away from his quest and crossed the mesas, high into the mountains, steadfastly following the trail of plants that may lead him to Vin. Slow and torturous for the man and his horses, his compulsion drove them on, while an innate urgency pulled him forward, sensing Vin's inner struggle and continual cry for help. His instinct chose his path, following a soft Texas drawl on the wind, a slouched hat with cavalry ties, and a vision of a long-haired wisp of a man dressed in clothes barely strung together. The odd ability to read each other's mind kept Chris Larabee in the saddle, moving into unknown and dangerous territory, only to find and bring Vin Tanner home.
Riding into a small village, at the base of an extremely steep mountain, he scanned covertly for any signs of recognizable desperadoes; unfortunately, his own presence sent the residents into hiding. The blond gringo in black, with red inflamed eyes, frightened them. Dismounting, without undo alarm for the shaded shadows watching, he handed a few pesos to a brave, curious niño to take care of his horses; and a weary, dusty man stepped into the first cantina. A full bottle of tequila quickly appeared on the furthest table in the back where Chris Larabee sat alone. Facing the entrance that led into the open-air but covered desert oasis, he finally removed his sweat-drenched hat, dropped it on the tabletop with a flap, creating a tiny whirlwind of sand that covered the twig-woven furniture. He took no notice; nor did he care. Mid-afternoon found him parched and tired as he raked his filthy hair with his long, thin fingers, while resting his elbows on the table. The steady hands of the gunfighter rubbed away part of the weariness traced in every line of his face; his mouth opened to whisper a very low sigh; and his mind returned to the last angry words uttered by his lost friend. Defeat encompassed him; and it did not bode well with the resolute man on an endless quest.
"A glass for your tequila, Señor?"
"Gracias." Too exhausted to look up, Larabee accepted and poured the familiar liquid into the small container. It would take more than one downing of a drink to help his frustration and confusion.
"You are worried, my friend?"
The gringo looked up, startled by a question an average stranger would not ask of the threatening figure he imposed. His squinting eyes focused on a small, elderly peasant with a friendly smile and a twinkle in his wise eyes. "Looking for someone," Chris replied quietly. "Been searching for months."
The gray-haired man heard the underlying regret and despair, realizing this man did not crave blood or silver, nor was he running from the law. Alone, this blond-haired man, dressed in black and dust, looked for a loved one. "One of your family, Señor?"
"Not exactly, but we're close."
"You have ventured a long distance by the look of you and your weary animals. What makes you think the person you look for is in Estacion de Catorce?"
"Ah, si. This area flourishes with the cacti, but it is the Huichol people who harvest and use the substance to communicate with their gods."
"Never heard of them, but the Apache, Comanche, and Kiowa also travel here in the spring."
"Alas, for you have ridden further south than the northern native peoples." The cantina owner's dark eyes saddened; and he sat down quietly to peer into the surprised green eyes of the gringo.
"Damn, I've missed him. Best retrace my trail and spread my search out further. Would you know of a place where a man could hide and survive on his own?" After his first swallow of the Mexican-made liquor, Larabee's throat cleared and his voice returned from raspy to gentle and quiet.
"If the man wished solitude, he would not stay here, for high on this mountain, up a rocky and treacherous road, sits an old silver mining city that is slowly returning to life. It was once a great mining town in the early eighteen-hundreds, but with God's grace, silver prices have gone up, and we are returning to our glorious past."
"If a large city exists up there, he sure as hell would have headed in a different direction."
"This man you look for... is he a long-haired muchacho who rides a black caballo with a white face and sometimes a pale colored animal?"
Chris straightened immediately. "Yeah, that's him! He did come this far!"
"Sí, but as you said, Señor, there are too many people who travel the dangerous trail up and down the mountain; and even this small village seemed to frighten him. It seems odd, as he does not appear the type of man to fear anyone or anything, but I did speak with him of potential places to find water and shelter."
"You know where he might be then! I'm getting closer!" Larabee's startled eyes grew larger, penetrating the old man's soul for answers.
"Si, I know of his whereabouts, but I promised the muchacho I would not speak of it to anyone." The old man looked to be in a quandary, and Larabee's long ride and voiced concern was not making his decision easy.
"Please, Señor, he disappeared so quickly and with such anger, I must find him. If you know anything, please tell me." Chris leaned across the table, his hands now shaking, and his voice cracking with every word uttered. He had lost his wife and son in the worst possible away; he could not lose another person he needed in some perplexing, misunderstood way.
"I understand your worry, my friend, for he is a polite, sweet-tempered muchacho, but very confused. His sadness left even this old man's heart broken. I can tell you that he headed northwest, possibly finding the safe spot I suggested. If you must go, I pray you do not startle him, for I also fear for your young friend. Follow the directions I will give you freely; or you could get lost in the surrounding rocks and desert. You cannot get to the area before the sun sets tonight; so please, Señor, sleep here until dawn's breaking, and with God's good grace, you may find him by mid-afternoon tomorrow. He speaks to no one who passes, hiding amongst the rocks of a crescent-shaped canyon. I traded a few simple items of lightweight clothing and large baskets for this. It may prove you are after the correct man." The elderly gentleman pulled out a shiny harmonica, and Chris cringed, knowing how attached Vin had grown to the melodic sounds of the instrument. He now had two of Vin's treasures that the tracker would never give up unless desperate.
"Gracias. This proves he was here, mi amigo. He is my friend, and you have given me hope of finding him." Chris smiled wistfully at the harmonica he now held in his hands, touching Vin's spirit through the warm metal. "Can I buy this back? It would have been difficult for him to give it up."
The old man chuckled at the disguised but desperate plea, gladly offering the musical instrument to the man in black. He refused to take anything for it, as it seemed of particular significance to both this weary traveler and to the man he searched for; and instead, contented himself with sharing another bottle of tequila and lightening the load of the distraught stranger. Through their quiet conversation over drinks and food, the amicable village elder gave Chris the directions to find his young runaway and offered the gunfighter a free room at the back of the cantina to spend a restless night.
Impossible to sleep with the intensity of his feelings raging, combined with the stifling late summer heat trapped in the small room, Chris twisted and turned in the first bed he had slept on in weeks. His trepidation and excitement grew with every rollover on the bed, wanting his young friend safe within arms reach. A day's hard ride and he would have Vin Tanner, if only the sun would hurry in its dawning.