Wings of the Past

by Oracle

The earth struck Josiah brutally, covering his bloodied body in dirt. No mercy was given as the rope, which held his rawhide bindings, insisted on dragging him onward. Struggling to get back to his feet, pain ran from his shoulder to his side. A precisely aimed arrow had pierced his shoulder slicing cleanly through the top of it and knocking him off his horse. The wound pounded unmercifully, mocking him as he struggled to keep pace with the horse pulling him. Josiah didn't have to look to know that the wound was now clotted with dirt or that his wrists bled freely. His throbbing head felt light and disoriented from the oozing wound on his brow as well as the blazing sun on his bare head. The sharp pain in his side reminded him to breathe shallowly. It had started out so calmly, but the once promising day, now seemed only to promise death. Dimly, he recalled the events of the afternoon.

*** *** ***

"Hey, Chris," said J.D., pushing past the doors of the Saloon. "There's a letter here to all of us from Judge Travis." The young sheriff held it in his hands, frowning over it.

"What's it about J.D.?" asked Chris from his usual table. He'd settled in for a drink in the slightly cooler dimness of the Saloon, it being just past noon and the room almost empty. The other five men who shared the table with him glanced up, mildly curious. Ezra returned to shuffling the cards in his hand after a glance in J.D.'s direction.

"Seems some Indians left from the reservation over in Indian Territory - ran away."

"A lot of 'em?" asked Vin, pouring another shot of whiskey into his glass, "Prob'ly tryin' ta go home."

"These Indians were from some tribe up North," said J.D. "Seems like if they were just tryin' ta get home, Judge Travis wouldn't have sent us a notice." J.D. sat down at the table with the other men. "Says here it's a whole buncha braves and they think they took off lookin' for someone."

"Did he say what tribe?" asked Josiah, holding his glass of whiskey up to the light and swirling it around.

"It's a long name. I'm not sure how to say it. Alg...Algon..."

"Algonquin," said Josiah and slugged back the shot of whiskey he had been contemplating.

"I've never heard of them," said J.D.

"They're from way up North," said Vin. "Wonder what they were doin' on the reservation down here."

"They're the last of their tribe," said Josiah. "The Algonquin were pretty much wiped out in the wars they had up that way."

"Judge says they were captured raidin' and taken there," said J.D. "Most of them had been there a while but then another one was caught runnin' with a gang and brought in. Right after he got there they all just up and took off. They've sent a cavalry unit after 'em."

"He wants us to warn the folks around here that live out of town," continued J.D., "and keep watch for any sign." Ezra just happened to glance up and catch the arrested look on Josiah's face. He watched as the big man rose from the table and walked out the door. J.D. stared after Josiah. It certainly wasn't like him to walk out in the middle of a conversation.

"Did I say somethin' that bothered him?" asked the young sheriff, still looking at the swinging doors.

"Hard to say," said Vin, also looking at the doors.

"I know he worked with some of those tribes up North for a while," said Nathan.

"You think it might be someone he knows?" asked J.D.

"Hard to say," Nathan echoed Vin's words. He looked from the doors back to the young man. "I wouldn't worry about it, J.D., I'm sure he'll be fine."

"All right," said Chris, "The ones on patrol today will warn the ranchers and farmers in the area. Ezra, you have the next patrol... so cover the ones on the North side of town..."

Ezra had been seated facing the door and seen Josiah's face as he left the Saloon. Instinct kicked in. Slipping his deck into his coat pocket, he rose from the table. He had an uneasy feeling and wanted to check on the whereabouts of the preacher.

"Pardon me, gentlemen," he said. "I have some business to attend to."

"Ezra..." said Chris. The gambler didn't reply but strolled out the door. The blond glared after his retreating back.

Josiah was already out of sight and for lack of a better direction; Ezra headed towards the church. After a little casting around, he tracked Josiah to the livery stable where found him saddling Apostle. He leaned on the doorpost.

"Dare I assume that you are planning an expedition into the immediately surrounding area?" he asked casually.

"I have some things to take care of," said Josiah, tying down his saddlebags. He met Ezra's eyes. The preacher had planned on leaving a note with Yosemite, but since the southerner had found him, he had to explain riding out of town. "If any Indians come 'round looking for'd be best if y'all don't know me." Ezra tilted his head, looking up at the tall man. "I mean it Ezra! You understand what I'm sayin'? You tell all of them.... tomorrow will be fine though." Josiah looked at him firmly, trying to both project an air of 'stay out of my business' and impress upon him the importance of doing as he said.

"I will advise them," Ezra assured him. "Do you have an estimate of how long you will be berefting us of your wisdom and wit?" Josiah sighed. The gambler seemed to have taken his words at face value.

"Not sure," Josiah responded, shaking his head as he finished checking his tack.

"Be cautious, my friend," advised Ezra. Josiah grinned at him and led Apostle outside. He mounted and rode quickly down the street, nonchalantly followed by a red-coated gambler.

Ezra strolled back into the Saloon a short time later, sat down at the table and started shuffling his ever-present deck of cards. The other five men were still discussing plans for alerting the countryside without causing too much panic among the ranchers and farmers.

"I'm afraid that Mr. Sanchez will be unable to join you in your endeavors," said Ezra. "Our esteemed colleague requested I inform you that, should any Indians appear seeking information about someone, we are to categorically deny knowing him." Chris' head shot up, eyes narrowed. Four other heads followed. The gunslinger rose from the table.

"That would be futile, Mr. Larabee," interjected Ezra. "He has left our fair community."

"Left town!" said Vin, sitting up, eyes wide and alert now.

"Yes, Mr. Tanner and before you ask...he was unable to inform me as to when he would be returning."

"Did he say where he was goin'?" asked Nathan, looking alarmed.

"He did not volunteer that information," said Ezra, "and from his demeanor, he made it clear I was not to ask." He flashed his most charming grin at all of them. "However, I took the liberty of shadowing him to the borders of our delightful little township and observing him until he was out of view. I am assuming our gifted Mr. Tanner can ascertain his precise direction from that location." Vin grinned and clapped him on the back.

"Good thinkin' Ezra," he said.

"I felt, as I am sure you all do, decidedly uncomfortable at our spiritually inclined companion wandering about in the wilderness sans the support of some of our number. Especially considering it is entirely possible that a collection of quite obviously irritated Indians are avidly seeking his company."

"Ya know, Ezra," said Vin, pausing in his motion towards the door. "I'm beginnin' to worry a bit."

"And why ever would that be, Mr. Tanner?"

"'Cause I'm gettin' to where I can follow what you're sayin'." Ezra cast him a disgusted look and rose from the table.

"J.D., saddle my horse," said Chris, trying to conceal a smile. "Vin's too."

"I'll help him," offered Buck. "I'm going with you." With a nod of agreement from their leader they left.

"I'll check on the beginnin's of the tracks," said Vin. "I know Apostle's marks."

"And I will escort you to the point at which Mr. Sanchez exited the community," said Ezra, following him out.

"Better check on my supplies," said Nathan, "just in case. Durn fool people around here will probably get so scared when we tell them there's Indians around that they'll be shootin' each other." Chris nodded.

"You and J.D. keep an eye on things here," he said. "Start carrying out the plans we made for telling folks outside of town to keep their eyes open. We should catch up to him pretty quick. I'll let Mary know where we're headin' in case we're out overnight. She can let the Judge know if things break loose here."

Vin easily picked up the trail outside of town. About an hour later, the tracker, who had been following the trail well ahead of them suddenly wheeled and raced back to Buck and Chris.

"Company comin'," he said. "Reckon it's them."

"Yep," said Chris, now seeing the cloud of dust, moving in their direction. "Vin." The tracker nodded and moved off to be certain of the trail before the group of soldiers obscured it.

"Ya know," said Buck conversationally, "Y'all give me goosebumps when ya do that." Chris gave him a blank look. Buck just shook his head as they moved to intercept the troop.

*** *** ***

While still stunned from his abrupt meeting with the ground and the agony shooting through his shoulder, several of the warriors had made quick work of holding him and binding his wrists with rawhide strips. The young brave who looked familiar to him approached, pouring water on the rawhide. Josiah looked up into eyes filled with anger and hate. Tying a rope to the bonds, the young brave turned back to his pony to reattach the waterskin. The big man's eyes were drawn to the one older Indian with grey braids who stood watching the proceedings closely. The preacher looked down at the tightly-bound soaked leather about his wrists and felt the young man's rage in the air about him.

A wild whoop rang out and his head jerked up to see the young Indian astride his pony. The warrior caught the rope tossed to him by another of their number and before Josiah could react took off at full gallop. There was no way he could have stayed upright. As his body hit the ground hard he had no time to think or plan. He could only struggle to keep his body relaxed and attempt to protect his head. Drug behind the racing pony, he bounced through scrub, sagebrush and large patches of cacti. Patches of sandy ground burned the clothes right off his body. Pain assaulted him as they made their way across the mesa and back.

Exhaustion was overcoming Josiah and his steps lagged. The rope jerked on his wrists again. He squinted up into the sun and wished once more that his hat hadn't been torn from him in his trip across the ground. Every time he swallowed, his neck reminded him of how his bonnet strings had torn across his throat as the passing bushes ripped his hat from him. The gash over one brow made him feel lightheaded and kept oozing into his eyes blurring his vision. When he raised his arms to wipe his eyes on his shirtsleeve a soft groan escaped as sharp pain lanced through his side. The big preacher felt sure that at least one of his ribs was broken. He had felt something give as he hit a large rock in his journey across the mesa. Lowering his arms carefully, his blue eyes fell on the flesh around the rawhide. As the strips dried and shrunk in the blistering sun, it had raised into a painful ridge. Every time his captor jerked on the rope they tore more deeply into his wrists. The slickness of the blood that oozed out around the leather wasn't enough to make escape a possibility since the shrinking rawhide only retreated further as it dried.

Before, there had been no time or opportunity for reflection was an advantage. It kept his mind off the pain flaring through his body. Josiah allowed memories to first random ones, of places he'd been, friends and family long past. The events of the day had stirred up thoughts of places and people he had buried deeply. He moaned softly as the recollection of one sweet young face brought with it a pain to his heart.

He shook his head trying to push away the last visions of blood, broken sobs, and screams turning instead to thoughts of his friends and their adventures...and misadventures, the last two years. Of a sunlit day when Nathan came and begged him to join them on a quest to protect a Seminole village, laughter at J.D.s calf-eyed looks at a young working girl. Ezra, losing at cards, stalking down the street in a tablecloth. Chris warming to the camaraderie they all had begun to feel, smiling and laughing again. Buck's antics as he floated from lady to lady, yet always at your back when you needed him. Vin determined to save him from his own burden of guilt when Cyrus Poplar had framed him for the murder of Miss Irene.

As those began to fade in the fog invading his thoughts, he focused on only one dear face at a time...allowing them to rise up before him as if they were truly there with him. He turned over sweet memories and thoughts of each one of his brothers, giving each their full measure and undivided attention. Chris' strength and leadership, Vin's crusading heart, Buck's wisecracks that belied his fierce loyalty, Nathan's gentle healer's spirit, Ezra's honor and tender heart, J.D.'s joy of living and naivete.

He knew this tribe...knew them by their clothing even if he hadn't understood their tongue. He knew their customs and ways. A wry laugh escaped Josiah as he wondered if it was more terrible to know what they were going to do to him, or to be unaware of the extent of their savagery. In all probability they realized he could understand them because conversation had been minimal among them. They drug him inexorably towards the point on the horizon where a massive granite outcropping rose straight up from the stunted trees. Their leader hadn't asked if he were guilty... which he knew meant it had already been decided. Later they would tell him what he had done. They didn't need to. He knew why they were here. Had known it when he looked into the young brave's face.

Thoughts of Hannah rose, but he had no fears for her welfare. Vin would make sure she was safe, warm and cared for. That brought up thoughts of other things. His heart clenched and he fought off tears. When he'd actively sought death as a means to some final peace, it had eluded him at every turn. that he had become a part of the Seven...part of this unlikely brotherhood. Now that his life had taken on meaning again... along with the growing feeling of family he experienced with his brothers. Then there were these last months when other possibilities were opening up in his life-possibilities he had not thought would be for him again. Now...he was going to lose it all... just when it became most precious.

"Why, God?" his heart cried out. "It isn't right! Why do you rip things from us when we find a little joy and peace?"

Josiah staggered along behind the pony, his steps slowing as the fiery sun and dehydration drained his strength. One of the braves rode by him, lashing out with a foot as he passed. The preacher bit back a cry as the moccasin connected with his already injured ribs. No use wasting energy and voice now. He knew there would be plenty of time for yelling later...and screaming. He knew, without a doubt, that there would come a point when he would want to scream...long to, and no longer have the strength or breath to voice his anguish.

*** *** ***

Chris and Buck pulled up when the cloud of dust had resolved itself into a troop of Cavalry. Most of the troop came to a halt as the four senior officers rode forward, with a Lieutenant in the lead. Two more soldiers peeled off to follow Vin. The commanding officer came to a halt a few feet from Chris.

"Lt. Burns, out of Fort Sill, Indian Territory," he introduced himself, then nodded towards Vin's retreating form. "Your friend seemed in a big hurry to leave."

"Not really," spoke up Buck as Chris and Lt. Burns eyed one another, each gauging the measure of the man he faced. "He's our tracker. Just wanted ta follow the trail out a bit 'fore you fellas covered it up with dust." He grinned. "We were expectin' ya."

"Really?" said Burns, turning from his perusal of Chris to focus his gaze on Buck.

"Yeah, Judge Travis told us you'd be out this way," said Buck.

"We were told to contact Judge Travis for assistance and information," the Lieutenant said, his eyes narrowing, "that he had some men who would know the area."

"We work for Judge Travis," said Chris, leaning forward on his saddlehorn. He nodded towards the two soldiers following Vin. "And if your two confuse the trail or cause any trouble with my friend..." He let the threat hang in the air.

"Sergeant!" barked the Lieutenant. The Sergeant beside him turned to another man and nodded. He galloped off after the two rapidly disappearing soldiers.

"And you are?" continued Lt. Burns.

"Chris Larabee." He looked at the other man.

"Buck Wilmington." The ladies' man touched the brim of his hat and grinned genially.

"Sgt. Callarman here." The Lieutenant nodded to the man beside him.

"So," the Sergeant said, "Would ye be outta Four Corners then?" He paused to turn his head aside and spit downwind.

"Reckon so," said Buck, also leaning on his saddlehorn in a relaxed fashion.

"We heard some things about some men outta Four Corners."

"Yes," snorted Lt. Burns, "some group of lawmen calling themselves The Magnificent Seven!" Chris sat up straight in his saddle and glared at Burns. Buck watched the gunslinger closely out of the corner of his eye.

"Knew I should have shot that runt when I had the chance," Chris growled. Buck chuckled.

"Hell, waren't none of our doin'," he said to the Lieutenant, amused. "Silly fool of a dime store novelist stuck us with that one. 'Tole ya Chris..." Buck turned back to the blond. "I offered...remember? Ya should of let me blow his head off out in the bushes that night...'fore he went and wrote that story." There was a shout of laughter from the Sergeant. The Lieutenant turned a cold gaze on him and he stifled it but his shoulders still shook.

"So, you're part of the Magnificent Seven?" said Lt. Burns in a mocking tone. Chris' eyes narrowed even more. "Have the Magnificent Seven found the Indians' trail then?" he continued.

"There's seven of us," gritted out Chris, sweeping back his duster and resting his hand on the butt of his pistol lovingly. "But it sure won't take more than one bullet to shut your mouth."

"We're traiing one of our men," interjected Buck, "afraid he might be in trouble with your friends."

"Ain't our friends," growled the Corporal still sitting his horse beside Sgt. Callarman. He spat as if to emphasize his feelings about Indians. Chris and Lt. Burns continued to glare at each other. Figuring an explosion was imminent, Buck winced. The thundering sound of hooves broke the tension. Chris' head snapped around to see Vin galloping at them full tilt, the other three trailing far behind. He pulled up by Chris, facing him, his back to the Officers. Buck shuddered at the look in his face. Vin looked at Chris and swallowing tightly, passed over the hat he held in his hand. Chris broke the eye contact to look down at the battered hat. He saw the bonnet strings were broken as if it had been ripped off. Chris looked back up into Vin's eyes. Reading the fear there he felt sure of the cause. The man in black knew he had no idea exactly what savagery those Indians were capable of...and Vin certainly did.

"Where?" Chris asked. Vin nodded in the general direction.

"Not very far," he replied in his soft voice. His eyes fell to the hat in Chris' hands. "There was some blood where they took 'im. And Chris..." The tracker's eyes rose to meet his again. "They drug some..." he swallowed tightly again, "thin' through the brush for a long way." Chris' eyes went dark, his jaw clenched. He focused on the hat in his hands, the hat almost as familiar to him as his own...that he had seen virtually every day for the last two years on the head of his friend...the soul of their little group. Slowly, with great care and fierce determination in his face he tied the broken bonnet strings together and looped them several times around his saddle horn till the hat hung there securely.

"Mr. Larabee!" said the Lieutenant crossly, unable to hear the low-voiced conversation. Chris held up a hand and his eyes rose to meet Vin's again.

"About forty of 'em," continued Vin, still in that low voice. "They ambushed 'im, then took off all together. Apostle's hoofprints was among the others."

"Buck," said Chris. "Go back and bring everyone..." He flinched. "Tell Nathan to bring plenty of supplies...whatever he needs from the store, I'll cover." Before Buck could respond Lt. Burns spoke again.

"Larabee!" he barked. Chris slowly turned his head to look at the Lieutenant again, almost as if he had forgotten he was still there. What the soldiers saw in the cold green eyes unnerved them.

"Sheeee-it," muttered Sgt. Callarman.

"Lieutenant," said Chris Larabee, and his voice was pure ice. "There's about forty Indians. They have our friend. Our tracker here is going to trail 'em and you and your men are gonna stay the hell outta his way."

"The three of you are going after forty braves!" Lt. Burns said, uttering a snort of laughter.

"There'll be six of us shortly," said Buck, wheeling his horse around.

"Well, you don't mind if we just follow along with you and see if we can help out?" said the Lieutenant sarcastically.

"If you want to help," said Chris, "you can send a few of your most reliable men to Four Corners to keep an eye on things till we get back."

"Sergeant!" said the Lieutenant. "See to it."

"Have 'em report to Mary," Chris said to Buck. "She can relay orders from Judge Travis." Buck nodded.

"Be back before ya miss me," he said, as four seasoned looking soldiers joined him.

"Tell J.D. I'll leave sign like I been showin' 'im," said Vin.

The five men thundered off in a cloud of dust. Buck raced Lady flat out and the others struggled to keep up.

*** *** ***

Josiah managed to contain all but a few groans as they lashed him spread-eagled to a pole and it's crosspiece in the center of the camp. It had been a very long night. The warriors had only stopped for a few hours rest before pressing on to their destination. He had, at first, been grateful that in this land of stunted trees they had been unable to find one with branches high enough to dangle him above the ground, as he knew was their practice with captives. They had to settle for tying his bound hands to a branch above his head. It pulled his arms almost out of their sockets, but left his feet still firmly on the ground. Though the stretched position caused a fierce agony in his ribs, he could still breathe... shallowly. Later, he began to wish they had found a taller tree, for he knew he would have suffocated before morning.

The warriors had taken the opportunity during their brief stop to cut the remains of his vest and shirt from him as well as removing his boots. He was now clad in nothing but his trousers. When they took the beaded necklace with the silver medallion from around his neck, he couldn't suppress a cry of agony. It meant more to him than even the medicine pouch he had worn under his shirt for so many years or the other symbols of his beliefs he wore on a daily basis. The medicine pouch they had torn from his neck and thrown away. The young brave dared stomp on it in his audacity, dark eyes glittering all the while. The older man with grey braids prevented him from completely destroying it. Grey Eagle made him leave it there in the sand. All the other medallions and necklaces they parceled out among themselves.

The young brave, having seen his reaction, took the silver medal and grinning at him, placed it around his own neck. Josiah lost control at that point, roaring his rage and lunging at him. Instantly, a dozen knives were pressed to vital points and many strong arms jerked him back. They tied his arms to the large branch overhead. The darkness and pain enclosed him. Josiah didn't always realize when one of the warriors passed him during those black hours, though each one took the opportunity to cut his exposed flesh with their knives...just deep enough to draw blood. None of them understood the words he gasped through parched and split lips... off and on during those midnight hours... like a chant.

"Mi Corazon....Mi Corazon..."

Now, as they stretched his arms out, the pain in his side increased again and his breathing became ragged. It was still early in the day. The combined effects of the blistering sun from the day before added to his even more exposed condition so far today had caused the areas of his skin that weren't lacerated or cut to turn a deep red. His eyelids had sunburned the day before without his hat to shade them, and now they were swollen, his eyes mere slits in his face. The preacher watched dully as they began to build a fire. They laid a great many long sharp sticks near the coals. The drums began to pound and braves danced around the rising flames. As they worked themselves to frenzy, one by one, they would dance near his outstretched form, slashing with their knives. More blood trickled down his exposed arms and chest to soak his trousers. Small splatters began to tint the sand at his feet. Others grabbed the long sticks from the coals and drew them across his skin leaving long trails of brilliant red interspersed with blisters.

Josiah let the drumbeats take him to another place. A place inside himself... of memories. He wrapped himself in the visions like a blanket... insulating him from the agonies his body endured. As he gasped for air in small pained breaths, the Indians danced before him in a smoky haze. One by one he allowed the face and form of each of his friends, his brothers to materialize before him as he said his farewells. Floating in a misty world of pain and blood he sent his final prayers for each of them winging on the desert breeze.

"J.D., grow strong and tall in spirit. Listen to Buck, he will teach you well. Follow Chris, he will lead you in honor." He gasped another shallow breath as pain racked his body.

"Ezra, listen to your heart. It won't lead you wrong. Become what you were meant to be. Give them your trust and you will find the best kind of riches in your brothers." The haze grew thicker and he seemed to see black specks in the sky. Idly, he wondered if they were crows.

"Buck, watch over them, protect them. Stand by Chris. Your big heart does you proud. Hold them together with it." The dancing Indians began to wheel and turn with the crows.

"Vin, courageous young Robin Hood... free spirit. Listen to the wind and the dancing waters. I will be with you, my friend, my brother, always. Be strong, speak wisely. Guard Chris' soul till he is ready for it to be returned to him." Flames, smoke, Indians and crows all swam before his vision. Pain came crashing in waves making each breath a deeper agony.

"Chris, let them ease your heart's pain, let them heal your wounds. Lead them well and truly. Live again." The warriors whirled more wildly... the crows perched on his arms and flapped wildly in his face.

"Nathan, my oldest friend, gentle healer of mind and body. Stay to your true path. Lean on the others as you have need. Be well, true brother of my heart and mind." The drums beat louder, savage screams and yells assailed his ears. Fire, flames and agony claimed his body. He pushed them back as one more slender form rose before him. The preacher looked once again into dark eyes before the face began to fade away. A ragged cry was torn from his soul.

"AAAAHHHHH...NNNOOOOOO!" he cried aloud. "Wait! Wait for me. I'm coming...soon." He felt the whisper touch of her hand on his cheek, and the light caress of her lips on his. Darkness rose and surrounded him... pulling him down into a brief respite.

*** *** ***

Vin galloped up to Chris who rode next to Lt. Burns. He and the Lieutenant had been sparring or glaring all yesterday evening and again this morning. The Corporal, Roy Barker, had done what he could to stir up the animosity between the two men. He had made constant barbed comments about the 'scruffy tracker' and the 'nigger'. It had taken a glare from Chris and Vin's hand on their youngest's arm to prevent J.D. from punching him in the nose. Cpl. Barker had tried to bait Ezra as well, however, his comment about him bein' one of them funny fellers had only elicited a smile. The gambler replied that 'it was much better than being a dogmatic intractable government employee with less acumen than the equine creature that bore him.' The Corporal had looked at him with a puzzled expression, not even aware that he was being insulted. Spitting some of his ever present tobacco juice on the ground, he had grunted and turned away.

Vin sidled Peso up next to Pony. "Found 'em," he said in his low voice. The tracker raised his head as though hearing something on the wind. "If ya listen close...ya can hear the drums." Chris grew still and heard the drumbeat in the distance.

"Did you see the camp?" Vin shook his head.

"Didn't get that close...bound to be look-outs." The gunslinger turned his head slightly.

"Buck, Jo...." He stopped. All of them went still. "Buck, we need to know where all the look-outs are."

"I can help," J.D. spoke up helpfully. Buck started to agree. He had been terribly proud the day before when J.D. led them straight to the others without a falter.

"Not yet, J.D." said Vin, meeting Chris' eyes and giving a brief shake of his head. J.D. started to protest, but then remembered what was at stake and nodded agreement. Vin looked at one of the older grizzled man who had been sent after him the day before. After a nod from the Sergeant, he joined the two and they rode towards the drums.

It had taken a while to locate the look-outs, which were, fortunately, spread thin. It seemed that all of the braves wanted to be in camp for the festivities. Carefully they approached, snaking their way through tall brush and ravines. After what seemed like an eternity to the six men, they arrived at a point Vin had located where they could see the camp from a height, without exposing themselves. The tracker pulled out his spyglass and began to slowly scan the camp. Chris, next to him, was aware of his stiffening posture and the almost inaudible intake of breath. Vin lowered the glass and looked at Chris. The stricken expression on his face alarmed the gunslinger.

"Is it..." he rasped out, unable to finish the sentence. 'No! No!' his mind screamed, 'It can't be too late!' He saw Vin's tight swallow. 'If these fools slowing us down has made us too late,' he found himself thinking, 'I'll tear every one of them apart with my bare hands.' Chris' attention was drawn back to his closest friend's face. What could be so bad that it shook the tracker who had lived with native tribes?

J.D., who had been standing nearby, took the glass from Vin's slack hand and looked through it. They all heard the strangled cry.

"J.D., no!" hissed Vin and grabbed the spyglass but it was too late. The young man's face blanched, eyes wide with the shock of what he'd seen. Suddenly, he turned and ran for the nearby bushes where he could be heard losing the contents of his stomach. Buck scampered after him and they heard his gentle voice soothing the kid in a low murmur as he continued to throw up.

"It's OK, kid. It's gonna be OK."

"I'm sorry, Chris," Vin rasped. "Waren't payin' enough attention." The tracker was pale underneath his tan. Chris reached out and grasped the young man's arm. He struggled to voice his question again. The other two stood near, anxiously waiting. So focused were they on discovering the fate of their friend and brother that none noticed the Lieutenant with his tracker and another spyglass. Lt. Burns held a whispered conference with the Sergeant, who then called low-voiced to one of their men. The younger man, carrying a long rifle with sights, moved to a position behind Chris and raising his weapon took careful aim.

Chris saw the look of utter horror on Vin's face and whirled. His mind registering the aimed rifle, he lunged forward, knocking the barrel up. Vin flew past the gunslinger, knocking the young Cavalry sharpshooter down.

"He's breathin', Chris!" said Vin, from atop the young soldier answering his leader's question in a rush. "I saw 'im! He's alive!" Chris turned and stalked over to Burns.

"You had no right!" he gritted out between clenched teeth, his eyes chips of green ice. "He's my man and my responsibility."

"Have you no mercy, Larabee?" snapped Lt. Burns. "They've been torturing him for over a day now! If he's got any mind left at all...he already wishes he was dead!"

"That's my choice to make, not yours!" growled Larabee and turning back to Vin, grabbed the spyglass. He put it to his eye, training it towards the camp below. Centering his vision on the form near the whirling warriors, he realized that only because of a few familiar things could he be sure that their preacher lay behind that unrecognizable face. The grey-touched wavy hair on the lolling head and his size, being much broader and taller than the warriors dancing past him made him positive their companion hung there, subjected to an unspeakable agony. Chris clamped down on the bile that rose in his throat and swallowed convulsively. The whole scene bored its way into his memory; blue eyes hidden behind swollen lids, face misshapen and blood-streaked, lips cracked and bleeding. The gunslinger could not even see the wounds on his body, though areas appeared covered by large clots visible even at this distance. The preacher seemed drenched in blood and he wondered how anyone could lose that much and still live.