Magnificent Seven Slash, The Runaway by Raven Davies



Chapter IV

Chris awoke, lying on his back with two blankets pulled up to his chin. He stretched and greeted the morning sunrise with a smile; always a pleasure to look at the desert at dawn and those shades of orange fire breaking over the bordering jagged peaks. Vin's presence startled him when he turned his head. It had been years since he woke next to someone. His paid-for-women seldom stayed, only doing their job, taking his money, and leaving him to rest in solace.

"Shit, Vin, you haven't moved. Must be freezing without blankets, considering my habit of stealing covers." He leaned over to see the smaller man, shaking in the see-through clothes, with the serape stuffed and twisted under him. The scent of mescal continued to linger on the wisp of a breeze, blowing through the heavenly scented bush and wafting over the two men. It continued to affect the tracker's sleep; the man appeared comatose except for the quivering. Blankets were quickly tucked around him, and once again Chris snuggled closer to the fragile figure, gently trying to rouse him.

"Come on, Vin. Time to get moving." The continual calling of the man's name received no response. Larabee instantly whipped back the coverings, laid the still tracker out straight, and placed his ear against a laboring chest, his fingers on the neck, picking up a heartbeat so slow he could barely detect it. Always the one in control, the gunslinger scanned the area in panic, not knowing what to do. Speed up the heart, get the body moving, were the only things that came to mind, and he immediately hoisted the smaller man to his feet. One of Vin's arms draped over the taller man's neck, held firmly with a strong hand. The rest of the limp body received support from Chris' other arm, encircling the narrow hips securely. The grip enabled Vin to touch the ground with his toes.

"Walk, Vin. Try to walk." A slight moan responded to Chris' harsher attempt to break through the barrier of poison. The single petal had been too much, and the gunslinger swore at his stupidity. He should have allowed Vin to handle the intoxicating petal, in the method the tracker used, as the younger man had lasted on his own for months and would have known the amount he required. With difficulty, Larabee dragged the dead weight around the camp, but each groan gave him hope that Vin grew more lucid. He kept walking, encouraging the lifeless tracker, demanding a step forward, and getting an occasional attempt, along with a grunt of disagreement. Another step and one more followed. Moaning between choking, raspy breaths, feeling began to flow through the rakish body, and with movement on the increase, Chris sat him down and carefully leaned him against the nearest boulder.

"Vin. Vin. Talk to me. It's Chris." The shout resonated for miles across the empty desert.

"Hunh?" The eyes remained shut tight, grimacing until the young face became a distortion of once that was beautiful.

"Wake up, Tanner. Come on. Help me out here." Chris gave him a few taps to the left cheek, until the bright eyes squinted at the pale-purple light of daybreak, but they only flickered as they filled with sadness and confusion.

"Chris?"

"I'm here, Vin. Keep talking."

"Too soon... too early."

"Don't think so. Keep talking and look at me, but shade your eyes. The sun's now up." The man in black continued to yell, slowly breaking through the fog-filled head. Tanner started reacting, squinting into the bright light shining in the East. "Best we take a look at you. Lie down flat and don't fall asleep on me. Stay with me, you hearing me, boy?"

"Too early."

"Just want to check your breathing and heart rate, and it ain't too early to start a new day." Chris fought off the disputing hands and placed his head against the heaving chest. A gurgle could be heard, but the young man inhaled to fill his lungs with fresh morning air, creating a coughing fit. Fingers, pressed against the neck, found a heartbeat that seemed too rapid for a gunslinger with little medical knowledge. Reasoning it out, the gunslinger realized the exertion he had put on the fragile body; but once rested, the coughing and heartbeat would slow to a normal level. Continuing to natter at the defensive man, Larabee had never said so many words in his life, until finding the runaway, and his throat felt parched and raw. With the tracker lying stll, Larabee made the short trip to the watering hole, filling a canteen that he downed, and refilled it for the tracker.

Tanner responded with silence and holding his breath. Being treated like a stupid child deemed unnecessary to the one who had been successfully surviving solo. Once again, covered and hidden under warm blankets, the tracker returned to his scattered emotional meanderings of ghosts, demons, and the reality of capture. Ideas came and went as to what to do next, but only one seemed appropriate.

On the gunman's return, he carried a cold, wet bandanna in hand to cool the heated forehead, only to discover his friend missing. Startled, Chris immediately thought of the shelter and its contents. Dropping the cloth, he dashed for the hideaway, just in time to witness the tracker scraping the soft down off his second button and chewing on his first. Wrestling the ailing body to the ground, the bigger man grabbed the long hair, forced the head back and the mouth open. He swirled his longest finger around the choking orifice, digging out the partially chewed, hallucinatory plant bud, while Vin savagely fought back.

"No." Again, a sharp command was uttered. Vin hated the harshness, not used to the angry orders coming from a friend; but he succumbed, allowing the man in black to hoist him to his feet and return him to his bedroll. The cold compress eased his headache; the coverings again secured him tightly. With the fire rekindled and coffee brewing, the gunslinger finally came to rest, kneeling in front of the wildcat who had returned to reclusive silence. A gentle hand removed the wet cloth, and Larabee could only shake his head, wondering how the man survived so long on his own, with such severe seizures as he had witnessed the day before. The thought had the older man growing increasingly concerned. The slim body had to be fighting back quantities of various poisons, which would naturally disrupt his sharp mental abilities. "Still with me, Vin?"

"How long?"

"How long for what?"

"Been away?"

"You left in February; now it's mid-September."

"Thought it still summer."

"You've been gone almost seven months. Been trailing you for nearly four. Wished I had your tracking skills, Vin."

"You found me, so guess you do. Seven months, hunh." Vin's head slowly cleared from the affects of the sophora and the rough handling Chris placed upon his thinning body.

"Reckon the trail back will take less time. Should be home in less than six weeks, and we need to cross the border soon to wire Nettie. She can then plan a date for the wedding."

"Ain't going back to see you wed Mrs. Travis." The tracker sat up and leaned against the smooth rock they used as a headboard for their bedrolls.

"What? I'm not courting Mary. Where's your head, Tanner? That peyote is giving you strange notions."

"Ever since riding with the wagon train, you've been happily escorting her about town; and she's been sweet as pie, thinking she's won." Vin screwed up his face in disgust to exaggerate his last remark, then remembered the mention of a wedding and his eyes widened. "So who's getting hitched?"

"JD and Casey." Chris said nothing further, waiting for a happy response.

"Oh, good for JD. That's real nice. What about Mary?"

"What about her? Thought you liked her?"

"Nope, she's hunting you, and you're building a house for the three of you. Ella Gaines messed up her plans for a while, until you finally understood the truth about your old flame; but that's another story."

"Vin, you're not making sense. Mary's a friend, nothing more, and she's your friend as well, teaching you to read. We kept company because you just weren't with me anymore. After your affair with Charlotte, you didn't want anything to do with the rest of us." Larabee had grown tired of references to all three women. Even Josiah and Nathan had brought them up before he departed Four Corners. If they were the reason for Vin's vision quest, he was unwilling to see any connection. After a long pause, the unwanted conversation continued.

"Charlotte? Never wanted her, but when I saw you flirting with Mary, thought I'd try and..."

"...try and what? Never saw you take an interest in any women of the town. Charlotte sure surprised me."

"Dumb mistake. Don't need to talk about it, just like you skipped over Mrs. or is it Miss Gaines."

"Fine with me." Chris' confused stare turned toward the dying fire, disturbed at the tracker's assumptions, although pondering on how an innocent would interpret the stated events. He had certainly misjudged Ella; and she could still create harm to anyone he cared about, including Mary and Vin.

"Want to know something funny?" Vin's remark had Chris veering directly back at a face that held a bemused smile and a little twinkle in the dark blue eyes.

"Would be a nice change."

"Don't even know where Brazil is." Both men laughed heartily, rolling on the ground with tears running down their faces.

Chris regained his composure, continuing to smile broadly, attempting, in his mirth, to stagger over to fix a sweet coffee for Vin. Stabilizing his young friend in a sitting position, he supported him as they sat together, helping to hold the cup for the tracker to take small, slow sips of the hot brew. "I'll fix breakfast, soon as you've finished."

"Can't eat since I ate last night."

"What's that got to do with anything? Besides, you haven't eaten anything since I got here."

"If I eat before chewing peyote, I get to feeling poorly. More demons leave, but hate being sick when I start feeling so good." Vin spoke as if this activity occurred daily, horrifying the gunman with the nonchalant confession. The tracker had been feeding on peyote buds daily for months.

"Sorry, Button, but you're having breakfast. No peyote for you today, Mister, especially after what we just went through. Besides, we have important things to talk about." Chris thought a change of subject would stop the need for Vin to scramble back to his stash, and he had to find the answers he had journeyed so far to obtain. Perhaps a different kind of confession would come out, if he kept himself in control, and did not snarl or snap in frustration.

"Why do you keep calling me Button? Sounds stupid." Vin went back to his coffee, looking annoyed and sounding disgusted.

"Because you've been eating enough of them to become one, and you're the size of a small wooden button. There's two reasons, and I do want to have a long talk with you. I know it's hard for both of us, but it's time to get to the bottom of all this hostility toward me and the rest of your friends. The two exceptions may be Nathan and Josiah."

"They're the only ones I trust."

Chris reeled back in shock. A shotgun blast directed at his chest would not have hurt as badly. He swallowed his emotions, and once again disguised his feelings that hovered so close to the surface. "You don't trust me? You're going to have to explain yourself, Tanner."

"More like y'all don't trust me, and I can't live with that."

Another blow to the older man's heart, but it may start the slow unraveling of the tracker's problems. He would have to endure each unexpected low blow when Vin finally opened up. From the fragmented, static speech pattern of Tanner, he would have to start again to get the story straight. Still supporting the smaller man, Chris staid his own shaking nerves and bleeding heart. Time to begin mending fences, if he could, and fences he did not realize were so badly broken. "Comfortable?" Chris leaned back a little further and tightened his grip around the tracker's bony shoulders.

"No."

"What would help you feel better, besides peyote?"

"Nothing."

"I've heard that some people get real unhappy after eating the buttons for a long time, so I'm guessing you were eating more than your share. Is that why you're squinting at me with that sorry looking face?" Chris suddenly changed positions, sitting directly in front of Vin who now nestled against the rock, looking more clear-eyed. From this angle, the gunslinger could study whatever emotion the younger man cautiously guarded.

"Nope, been feeling like this for a long time. Peyote makes it go away for a short spell."

"Must have good reasons to feel so sad?" Chris' eyes never left the face trained to disguise every emotion.

"Reckon I got plenty." Vin stared back, not falling for the trick. He did not want this conversation, and he did not know how long he could handle the intensity of the questioning.

"And one of them is the fact you don't think we trust you?"

"That's one."

"So, tell me what else, and start at the beginning?" The short statements, explaining nothing, unnerved the gunslinger. He needed more than a couple of words.

"I killed her." Although a shocking confession, Vin appeared detached from what he thought to be a simple fact.

"What?" Instantly shaken and surprised at the sudden and abrupt revelation, Larabee knew the former bounty hunter had a price on his head for murdering a man in Texas, but a woman?

"You haven't forgotten, so don't pretend you don't remember Claire Mosely."

"Claire Mosely? Why would we blame you for what happened? Her father killed her, Vin. You had nothing to do with her death. You handled a difficult and dangerous situation, mainly on your own. You believed in Sha-nu, understanding native ways; and with Nathan's help, saved an innocent man. Shoot, we all admired you for standing your ground. I understood everyone's initial concern, but your friends rallied behind you at the end."

"Think they were pretending, considering what they had said before I found Sha-nu. As for helping the man, I got his wife and unborn child killed."

"Stop, I don't want to hear anymore of your misplaced guilt over Miss Mosely. It's over, Vin."

"No it ain't. After I came back to town, I heard things." Tanner veered his eyes elsewhere to put distance between himself and the man he had lost trust in for many reasons.

"People talk, even when they don't know the entire story. Ignore them."

"Can't when they're supposed to be your friends." Vin squinted out into the desert, trying to stop the quiver in his voice while avoiding Chris' surprised look.

"Who and what did they say?"

"Ain't important now."

"Has to be, if you mentioned it. Now tell me." Larabee tried to hold his confusion in check, but he may have found an opening to start a sensible conversation.

"Heard Buck and Ezra stood right out in the street, saying they didn't trust me. I was the wrong man for the job to find Sha-nu, and everybody heard them. I messed up, forgetting his peoples' way of dressing. We always remove belts, spurs, and such from white-men, but I forgot the leather strapping holding Sha-nu together. He had enough to hang himself, but he had good reason to escape." Vin hung his head, swallowing hard, trying not to breakdown. His calm fašade could easily teeter in his depressed state without the consoling peyote.

"You're right. We took away his weapons, but he still carried hidden ones we neglected to recognize as such. As for your friends, their concern clouded their thinking."

"Nope. Y'all don't trust me, including you, Larabee." The tracker regained his control, to stare accusingly at the man. Those blue eyes could rattle a snake when they looked that intense.

"Where are these strange ideas coming from, Vin? Trusted you then, and still do. I trust you with my life; you know that." Hurt beyond reason, Chris thought his mental link with Vin had remained intact over the few misunderstandings they had overcome. He stood beside this man since they met, protecting him from everyone and everything; at least he thought he had. Larabee's heart crumbled, while listening and seeing the sorrow deepen in Tanner's face; and he waited for the next revelation.

"When you told me we'd be traveling with a wagon train, I got real excited, thinking we'd be out on the trail together. Turned into my worst nightmare when Mary showed up with Billy. Everything went wrong from there, and that's when you asked if you could count on me. You said it like you couldn't, and told me to tell you when you could. Hurt me real bad, Chris, and made me mad. When you told me to leave, I was going to leave all right--leave for good--just didn't expect Charlotte to be waiting across the river. We rode away only to discover O'Shea's plans. Left with no choice, I had to return to warn y'all, no matter the consequences waiting for both me and Charlotte."

"Appreciated the warning, Vin, but you had me worried, running off with a married woman, when I just wanted you safe in Four Corners. I've never seen you take an interest in women. You're good with them, helping them out, holding them when they're crying, but I thought you were getting over your head with a desperate one." The blond looked away and stared off into the desert--a beacon for both men to focus on when emotionally lost--a desolate landscape for empty hearts. He had mishandled the situation between Charlotte and Vin, and now realized the truth of Mary's intentions. She joined the settlers to taunt him with Gerard; and he fell for it. He should have never interfered, leaving her to marry and settle down with a good man, instead of flirting with her, just to win something he did not want, and had been set up to claim the prize. In the process, he had ignored Vin and his plight.

"No, you said you couldn't count on me. Maybe you can't. Did something real stupid, and got in so deep with Charlotte, I couldn't climb out. You weren't there to help me, so I guess I can't count on you neither." Vin's eyes also searched for movement in the unchanging landscape, while the gunslinger's eyes veered to see the lower lip tremble. The tracker's stoicism was breaking down.

"I understand it now, Vin. I do. I was a target, and an easy one, as were you during that time. Unfortunately, the only thing to say is I'm sorry. Instead of playing games with Mary, I should have helped you sort out your feelings for Charlotte."

"That was the problem; I didn't have those kind of feelings for her, Chris. Just tried to make a sad woman smile, but things went too far and too fast." Tanner rubbed his face to erase any signs of sorrow. He had been hurt badly by words the gunslinger said during the trip, but there remained more to tell. Wishing to run for a fresh button, he felt trapped and vulnerable.

"Reckon I didn't want to see the truth."

Larabee hit a fire in Vin and the yelling rampage started. "The truth! I'll tell you the truth. You played a game with Mary, and with me. Hell, I nearly got blown up saving those people, and all you did was look at me and then left me with Nathan. Could have been hurt real bad, then what would you have done? Just like everything else in your life, you'd grieve forever, but never fix it proper like. I'd have been thrown in a hole with dirt covering me, a few meaningless words spoken, and then you'd have carried another burden. The whole group of y'all wouldn't have even considered that I grew up in a different culture. You only care about yourself, Larabee, and what you once had. You lost your wife and son, but everyone deals with inner grief, like JD losing his mother, Ezra trying to cope with a lost childhood, Nathan losing his father only to find out the man was a hero, Buck raised in a whore house, Josiah taking care of..." Vin stopped abruptly. He had said too much; promises were sacred.

Another kick to his gut, Larabee ground his teeth, clenching his jaw, and showing every vein in his face. He had forgotten Vin's selfless acts and quick thinking. All the young man's sacrifices, to protect a dusty little town, a group of settlers, a small native village, and handing himself over to the law to initiate Chris' own escape, had been lost in his own selfish pride and on-going mourning. If he wanted this man, as he had the night before, he vowed silently to listen to every angry word with no retaliation. With the sudden silence, he raised a question, "If you died, Vin, and hope you never do, what would a Kiowa or Comanche ritual entail." Hanging his head between his knees, he waited, wishing for a civil response, but keeping in mind every word said. The entire group were misfits and still strangers.

"A pyre, on stilts, set aflame, until only ashes are left to scatter in the wind." Vin also lowered his head and continued to speak softly. "I once told you, that if I died, to return my body to Tascosa and take the bounty money on my head. Coming back to this desert, I've had time to think about a lot of things. I'm home here and I'll die here. The Huichol would know what to do, if they found me dead. My spirit would rise to the stars, and my ashes would blow in the wind for eternity. I'd be free."

"I promise to find your family, Vin."

"Easy for you to say, but they've scattered."

"You told Nettie that your mother died when you were five. What happened to your father?" Chris ensured he used the formal nomenclature used by the tracker, which he had pondered upon so many months previously. "Tell me about them and how you ended up with both the Comanche and Kiowa."

Vin sighed and pulled the bandanna off his head, to rake his fingers over his forehead and through his hair. "You're asking too much."

"It's a beginning."

"The beginning... I was born in the Republic of Texas, when land was free for the taking. My folks were born in Texas and when they married, they moved further west to a perfect place about a day's ride from Santa Fe. A time of peace with the native people and the many Mexicans living in the area, they settled near a river where a band of Comanches camped when following the buffalo. My father gave the chief one of his three stallions, and in return, they let us be, until my mother died of putrid fever. Scared the horrible disease would spread, my father warned the natives and they fled. He burned everything my folks had built, leaving us only with a few things to survive and the horses. When the Comanches returned, they found us camped by their river, continuing to train and care for our horses. They understood my father saved them from a potential plague, and they became our protectors from other bands, tribes, groups, and invading white folk. I didn't know the difference, too young and confused, and I just became one of the kids running and playing."

"Sounds like a good life: free and safe."

"Not for long. When I was seven, my father fell from a horse and broke his neck. He died and a Comanche family took care of me. There were other white men and women around camp, and they told me never to forget my English. They were smart and taught me the ways I'd need if ever separated from the band."

"Why didn't you stay with them?"

"Wanted to, but the stream of white-men kept pushing us off our land, including the large parcel left to me. The Comanche, Kiowa, Cheyenne, and one band of Apache came together to stop them, but in the last few years, the war has ended and they are being caged, unable to roam freely. My Comanche mother died and my new father married again, so I wasn't welcome. They still cared about me, but thought it best I leave. The Kiowa needed someone to help them deal with the white-men, and the Chief asked me if I would willingly join another band of a different culture. Gave me a chance to be a man at a young age, and two Kiowa warriors welcomed me into a different kind of family."

"What was different?"

"They understood what I was and accepted it." Vin took a deep breath and covered his eyes. Once again, he had said too much.

"Don't stop talking now, Tanner. I need to know."

"Sorry, but I don't plan on dying today."

"What do you mean? You're not making sense." Hit by a lightning bolt, Chris understood immediately. Vin's quest was to find himself, that was certain, but the young man already knew and had for most of his life. Now the gunslinger had an another opening after the erotic flirtation of the tracker the night before. A natural attraction toward men deemed the only reason the handsome tracker avoided women.

"In your world, Larabee, you could justifiably kill me."

Vin's simple statement said it all, and the older man had to dig a few more holes to obtain the confession he desired. He pondered on his next move before speaking. "How old are you, Vin?"

"Don't know. What difference does it make?" The strange question resulted in another deadly squint at the older man.

"Thought you experienced enough to handle someone like Charlotte. Think you're younger than you let on." With a simple statement, the gunfighter thought himself safe, but had again ignited Tanner's wrath.

"Old enough, and you've had enough experience to know when a woman's gunning for you, considering your encounters with common whores, Mary Travis, and the worst of them, the murdering Ella Gaines." Vin looked down at his hands, wringing them furiously to stop the attempt of punching someone; or better yet, to beat his antagonist senseless.

A strained silence filled the air. Chris sickened at how long Vin's suffering had festered into unbearable guilt. His Peyote Button was a muchacho, but an admission looked doubtful. Shaking his head, Larabee silently cursed again for misunderstanding Vin's confusion over Charlotte. Thinking back, the tracker did appear over his head with one feisty, overwhelming, and very aggressive female. Overtly strained and nervous during the entire trip, Vin came close to being killed several times in the process. Chris had barely acknowledged him when he took the horrendous fall, only helping him up, and then leaving him to stand hunched over on his own. Nathan had helped the young man who stubbornly refused aid, his anger overriding his commonsense. Larabee should have realized the tracker did not need his warning and an ultimatum, but a voice to calm and steady a misunderstanding. How could he forget the menacing presence he displayed when annoyed, but he thought Vin understood his guarded, threatening ways. After what they had been through, Chris knew nothing of the best sharpshooter and tracker he had ever met. It had been so easy for them to talk, or not to talk, when they first met, understanding each other instinctively.

Vin sat trembling, never having revealed this much to anyone, and there was so much more. Fully absorbed in their own thoughts, neither man heard the five incoming riders on unshod ponies, making their way around the rocks and heading straight for them. Three of the natives slipped off their mounts and headed for the adobe enclave, leaving the other two with rifles pointed directly at the two men. Without moving his head, Chris scanned for his gun, but he sat helpless, as did Vin. They heard the three come out from the stone walls, carrying baskets of peyote buttons and the dried jimsonweed, while the two astride their mounts appeared more intimidating, staring menacingly.

The tracker suddenly leapt to his feet, lurching forward and yelling furiously at them in one of the many native tongues he spoke. Side-stepping his horse to cut off the outraged young man, and cutting him off from the precious treasure the three Kiowa tied to their saddles, the imposing leader of the group allowed Vin to ramble until the impressive man slipped off his horse and firmly grabbed the native-raised tracker. He gave the disturbed man a quick, insulting smack across the face, which landed him on the ground, and spoke sternly to him, sounding more paternal than threatening.

Chris hustled over and picked Tanner up, to stand erect in front of the unsmiling Kiowa warrior who looked directly at Vin, stating his concern in perfect English. "Stop and speak in your natural tongue. You are mixing Kiowa with Comanche, you foolish child. You have stolen what is sacred to my people, the Huichol, and your Comanche friends. You used the plant without regard of their special power. Peyote is a gift from the Great Spirit, and you have betrayed him; the gift must be shared and the proper rituals performed before you understand the visions peyote gives you freely. You disobeyed our rites and beliefs. Leave here, and if you ever return, remember what peyote means to your adopted people. You speak their tongue, as well as ours. You should know better, young one."

Instead of rambling in a combination of Kiowa and Comanche, Vin stood his ground and spoke clearly. "I know the rites and rituals. I also know your people do not come this far south. You are in Huichol territory."

"As are you." The warrior in charge eased back on his charges, looking up and down the scrawny man.

"They have accepted me and my harvesting of their sacred plant. We do not speak, but we share the buttons, and certainly the water, when they travel this way. You have no right to take what is not yours either."

"We have seen this, as we have watched your journey to this place. One of our elders was concerned when he spotted you entering our territory to the north, and he sent us to follow your path. Our dying friend seemed to know you, but we promised to wait until someone who cares for you arrived. We have been away from our band for many moons, but if you return to your home, we also can regain the time we have lost."

"I intend to stay here, so give back what is mine."

"It is time you returned from wherever you came. You are ill and need help. This yellow-haired man has come to rescue you from your demons, not the peyote. We will certainly share the buds with the Huichol before our return north. Giving is as important as receiving; so, my young warrior, we accept your gift in return for your safe passage home." The warrior looked at Chris who nodded in agreement at the warrior's correct assumption. The entire conversation remained polite and formal, once Vin had regained his dignity and respect for his elders.

Setting Vin aside, the Kiowa leader approached Larabee, and with a wave of his head, the two men walked away out of hearing range. "I understand we are men on the same journey. Our elder is a wise man, sending me, rather than one who may have murdered you both for your scalps. Our people allow the feelings and physical needs of men who are satisfied only with other men, and our ways do not keep us from becoming warriors and leaders. We are part of a village that treats us as equals. Your world does not approve of what is natural, so I am asking you to take care of the young man: the one who first started to teach us English and your ways. If you are in fear for your lives, in your white-man's world, I extend hospitality to stay with me, as each man in our band has been allotted land to ranch or farm. You will be welcomed, once I have spread the word, and perhaps we can exchange favors, such as your knowledge of occupations we Kiowa have no experience with. We may see each other in the future, and the young one will find us. Farewell, my friend." The extraordinarily handsome man turned and leaped onto his horse with the agility of a deer. A full hand rose in farewell; as the other four mounted up, taking everything Vin had stored, and rode off at a gallop.

Chris stood with his lips tightly pressed together, understanding they escaped a horrible death. The leader of the group recognized that both he and Vin were attracted to each other, and warned them of what to expect. The invitation to return to a Kiowa village had merit, if and when a crisis came up. The lands given to the band, according to the treaty, were equally dispersed amongst every male member of the village, and then passed down to their families. Vin would never be a part of that, however, he did have some form of legal rights to his father's land. Caught in a dilemma, he jolted out of his disturbing thoughts when he heard Tanner's demeanor return to outrage, yelling obscenities and cursing the men who could have killed him without hesitation. Chris caught him in flight and held on, while fists and feet flew in every direction. The shrieking and yelling continued in words the gunman could not understand; or why Tanner acted insanely at the unexpected visit.

Infuriation, distress, the total destruction of one man appeared on a helpless face, leaving Vin without a choice and facing a dreary, depressing winter scavenging for a few buds left behind. Devastated and ashamed, the fragile spirit collapsed to the ground. His way into another world slammed shut, too late to replenish his stock. He no longer felt anything but grief.

"The peyote's gone, Vin, and you don't need it anyway."

"Shut your mouth, Larabee. What would you know of what I need?" Vin yelled, his anguish turning to venom. Keeping his eye on his nemesis, he gingerly headed toward the open desert that no longer bloomed during the day. The colors had vanished, not to return until spring, along with the potent cactus that turned his visions into wondrous landscapes.

"You ain't running again, Mister." Chris whisked him up, with Vin uttering more profanity as he was carried back to camp and set down. "Now then, seems to me, you have no reason to stay here."

"Have to find more."

"Why? Why do you need it? You said your vision quest was over."

"It's my way out. I disappear, but I see and hear all so clearly. Everything is gone now and my final quest has died." Vin rolled onto his side, away from Chris, away from life, away from a future.

Chris watched in utter astonishment at the childish behavior acted out by one of the deadliest sharpshooters he had ever met. The peyote had changed his elusive tracker, and he wondered if the real Vin Tanner would come back. He pulled him up, and platonically put his arms around the shaking figure, rocking him back and forth. Afraid of this side of a man he did not recognize, Chris could not believe how easily the tracker fell apart; but in the last ten minutes, he had thrown the wildest of temper tantrums, one right after another. He knew Vin did not need the drug physically, but mentally he relied on the plant to temper his guilt and his perception of betrayal. He quietly whispered softly, his lips tight against Vin's ear, "Come home, Vin. Please, just come home."
   

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