"Okay just dont rush things!"
Vin escaped from the clinic with Nathans warning ringing in his ears. After his brief sojourn with Chris and another two days cooped up! the Texan was finally being allowed out on his own.
It was just before midday, and the main street was quite busy as Vin wandered along trying to recall the places the gunslinger had pointed out to him. Almost without conscious thought, he found himself heading towards the newspaper office.
He opened the door and stopped. Mary Travis was seated at her desk, blonde head bowed in concentration as she wrote furiously on a sheet of paper. Looking up as he entered, she gave him a smile and put her pencil down.
"Vin. How nice to see you. How are you?"
Her greeting was warm and genuine, and he grinned in return.
"Better. Nathan let me out," he said, making it sound as though he had escaped a prison sentence, and she laughed aloud.
"Would you care to join in me some coffee?"
"Yes. ma'am. No - " He held up his hand. "I'll get it."
"Thank you." She nodded in the direction of the stove, waiting until he had poured two cups and settled into the seat opposite her. "So, what can I do for you?"
"Nothing really." He regarded her over the top of the cup. "Im just trying you know?"
She had seen him three days ago, walking around town with Chris, and she knew he was starting to feel his way on his own, trying to familiarise himself with people and places he had once known so well. The tracker sipped his coffee and looked at the sheet of paper in front of her.
"So, what are you working on?"
"Oh!" She seemed surprised that he was interested. "Im writing an article about the mustangers and Mr. Butler, the Army buyer. Hes due in on the stage this afternoon."
"Yeah, JD told me."
"Well, I thought it would be a good idea if the people in town knew how much business he could bring our way."
The Texan nodded in approval. Once word had spread from Fort Laramie about the quality of the horses and he had heard from Buck just how good the animals actually were - then other buyers from the Army and large ranches would be clamouring for the livestock, and Four Corners could see a healthy return for the inconvenience of the minor disruptions.
"You could be right, maam," he said, looking up and frowning as he glanced out of the window. Chris Larabee was standing across the street, staring at the newspaper office.
"Is everything alright, Vin?" Mary asked, seeing his expression.
But the tracker began to wonder why the black-dressed gunslinger was watching him.
+ + + + + + +
For the rest of the day, Vin wandered slowly around town, pacing himself as he visited various places and talked to the townsfolk. He spent several pleasant hours having lunch and a beer with Ezra in the saloon, but he was acutely aware of Chris presence wherever he went. It was unobtrusive at first a face in the crowd, a familiar voice in a conversation but eventually it began to grate on him. To him it felt as though the gunslinger didnt trust him to be out on his own, and was just waiting for him to fall.
Vin tolerated Chris shadowing him for no more than half a day. The breaking point came when the tracker entered the General Store in search of some candy for Billy. Josiah was standing at the counter talking to the owner, and he tipped a wink at Vin when he saw him, and then carried on with his conversation. The Texan roamed absently around the store, studying the jars of candy until he found the one he wanted. Picking it up, he turned around and saw Chris staring at him through the window.
The tracker had already started to feel the all too familiar throb of a headache behind his eyes, and he gritted his teeth as he turned his back on the steely-eyed scrutiny. Placing the jar of peppermint candy on the counter, he tipped his head back, trying to ease his neck muscles as the shopkeeper came to serve him.
"What can I do for you, Mr. Tanner?"
The tracker still found it a little disconcerting that so many people knew him, but he just couldnt put names to all their faces yet. He forced a smile.
"Ill have two bits worth, please," he said, pushing the jar towards the man.
The man shook pieces of candy onto his scales, and wrapped the correct amount in a piece of brown paper, which he handed to Vin.
"Thanks," the Texan said, dropping a couple of coins into his hand, but as he turned around he almost crashed into Chris, who had come up behind him with all the stealth of a prowling cat.
"Vin." The gunslinger eyed his friend up and down. "Howre you doing?"
Vin stepped back, his face suddenly darkening, and then he exploded, his anger and frustration tumbling out before he could stop it, and Chris caught the full force of it.
"Howm I doing?" he hissed. "Ill tell you, shall I?" His voice started to rise as his temper boiled, and he tried hard to ignore the flare of pain that stabbed at his temples. "Im sick of you dogging my every step!"
"Im not," Chris protested, but the Texan silenced him with a furious glare.
"You are!" Vin jabbed a finger at the black-shirted chest. "Its my memory Ive lost, not my senses. Youre driving me crazy!"
"Were only trying to help." Chris didnt know what else to say as he placed a hand on the trackers shoulder, but Vin shook it off.
"I dont need any help," he yelled, wincing as his headache suddenly soared on wings of agony. "And I especially dont need you!"
He pushed his way past Larabee, blind to the hurt that passed briefly across the gunslingers face, and was out of the door before the other could even blink.
Chris started after him, but Josiah laid a hand on his forearm and held him back.
"Let him go, Chris," the ex-preacher said gently. "That boys got
whole world of hurt and frustration bottled up inside him."
"But he might need "
"Ill go and find him. He wont have gone far." Josiah knew what was worrying Chris; he had seen the effect the debilitating headaches had on Vin, and he knew the Texan would be feeling like death at the moment.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah found the tracker behind the Livery Stable, sitting on a bale of straw in the shadow of the building. Vin was totally unaware of his presence, so he took the opportunity to study him carefully. The Texan was slumped forward, his head resting in his hands and his shoulders heaving as he tried to force some control over the pain. The ex-preacher sighed, pulling his kerchief from around his neck and dipping it in the horse trough.
"Vin, you okay?" he asked, dropping down beside the tracker and draping the wet cloth across the back of his neck. Tanner glanced up briefly, and shook his head.
"Nathan said the headaches would get better," he said with a moan, pulling the wet cloth around to cover his eyes as he leaned back against the building.
"Theyre getting less frequent though, arent they?"
"I guess so." The Texan paused and took the kerchief away, regarding Josiah suspiciously. "Did Chris send you after me? Im surprised he didnt come himself!"
"No." Josiah didnt tell him that hed stopped him. "I just thought you might need to talk."
Vin sighed. "Why does he do it?"
"Do what, son?"
"Follow me like Im some kind of fool. Whenever I turn around, hes there!" He leaned back and closed his eyes again, willing the headache away.
"He cares, Vin," the ex-preacher said softly.
"Hes got a funny way of showing it."
Josiah ignored the petulance in the younger mans voice and placed a large hand on his shoulder, smiling when he glared at him.
"Let me tell you something that youve forgotten."
He saw the tracker wince at his words, and he began to get some idea of how the other felt. There had been many times when hed wished he could forget his past, but now he wasnt so sure.
"Chris lost his family in a fire a few years back. His wife and their son, a boy about Billys age." Josiah paused, wondering how much he should tell Vin. In the end he decided that the tracker was better off knowing everything. "Until he came to Four Corners it was as though a large part of him had died with them. He was afraid to let anyone get close to him afraid to let people even know he cared."
"So what happened when he got here?" Despite his anger at the gunslinger Vin was curious.
"We did you did."
Thinking about it now, Josiah realised that Chris had changed since hed arrived in Four Corners, and much of that was due to the kindred spirit hed found in Vin Tanner.
"I thought Buck was his best friend?"
"He is, but the problem is they know too much about each other. You and Chris are alike. Youre like a younger version of him, so he knows how you feel, knows what youre going through."
Vin closed his eyes. The pain of the headache was beginning to subside, but now he had something else to occupy his mind. He hadnt thought about anyone elses feelings recently, only his own, and he hadnt considered how difficult it was for them to accept him the way he was now, not when they had known another side of him.
"I didnt know," he whispered, and Josiah patted his shoulder in sudden understanding.
"I dont think any of us did until this happened," he replied honestly.
He stayed with the Texan until the headache had faded to a level he could tolerate, and then he walked with him back to the clinic.
+ + + + + + +
"JD wants to see us."
Chris was lounging at the foot of the steps when the ex-preacher came out of Nathans rooms a few minutes later. As Josiah fell into step beside him, the gunslinger shot him a quick glance, knowing the other was waiting for him to say something.
"Is he alright?"
Josiah grinned. "Yes. Theres no need for you to worry."
"I wasnt. I was just asking." The excuse sounded so lame that Chris wondered why hed even said it, but Josiah kept his silence as they approached the Sheriff's office. Pushing open the door, they found that Buck and Ezra were already there, and they looked enquiringly at Chris, wondering what this meeting was about.
"JD." Chris looked at the peacekeeper, and the young man handed him a sheet of paper. As he read it a frown crossed his brow, and then his face grew hard. Josiah read it over his shoulder, and then the gunslinger handed it to Buck.
"Two days ago Chris asked me to check on a man whod just arrived in town," JD began.
"That hombre in the saloon who was so interested in Vin," Larabee put in.
"I remember," Buck growled, passing the paper to Ezra as JD continued.
"Well, I wired his description to some of the other towns hereabouts. Yknow, see if they could put a name to him. That arrived a little while ago from the Sheriff in Eagle Bend."
"Douglas McKenna," Ezra read. "Wanted in three States for murder and armed robbery. Known associates include Jace and Travis McKenna, brothers to the aforementioned person. Descriptions follow." The Southerner read the description of the three brothers, and then he looked sharply at Chris. "But "
"Yeah. Travis McKenna was the kid Vin killed here in town two weeks back." The gunslingers eyes were cold, and his lips were drawn in a thin tight line. "I reckon Doug McKenna was the one who waited and shot Vin at the river crossing."
"So what are we waiting for?" Buck demanded. "Lets go get the bastard!"
Buck and Ezra both spoke at once as they turned to the young peacekeeper.
"As soon as I got the wire, I checked the Livery," JD told them. "Freddy said the guy had paid for a week in advance, but he collected his mount and pulled out yesterday. Sorry."
"Damn!" Buck swore, but Ezra smiled. "Whats so funny?" the ladies man demanded angrily.
"It means that Mr. McKenna is fair game if he ever comes back after Vin," Ezra replied.
"Fine but what do we do now?" Buck looked to Chris for guidance, ready to go along with whatever the man in black suggested.
"Im gonna take a ride out of town, see if I can cut his trail," Chris said.
"Then youre gonna have company," Buck told him, and Chris nodded.
"Well, Ive got to wait for the stage," JD said apologetically. "That Army buyers on it."
The gambler regarded Larabee for a moment, and then he smiled.
"I would say it was the bounden duty of Mr. Sanchez and myself to ensure the safety of Mr. Tanner whilst you are absent," he stated.
"Well watch Vin," Josiah agreed.
Chris nodded his thanks. "Alright, Buck. Lets ride."
+ + + + + + +
The man who had ridden in on the dun horse was patient.
Doug McKenna knew the Army buyer was due to arrive in town, and he had made it his business to find out where he was staying, and whom he would be visiting. There was only one thing spoiling his careful plan, and it was a loose end that he intended to tidy up before he left.
He had used his time wisely, finding out all he could about Four Corners from the group of mustangers that he had encountered, and he already knew about the reputation of the group of men assigned to protect the town. The one thing he hadnt counted on was Vin Tanner still being alive. It had handed him one hell of a shock when the buckskin-clad tracker had stepped into the saloon with Chris Larabee, and calmly sat down to drink a beer. It had taken all his resolve not to draw his gun and shoot him where he sat. Only the prospect of easy money had stayed his hand.
Despite his caution, McKenna had been aware of Larabees scrutiny in the saloon, and he had decided it would be more prudent to pull out until he was ready to hatch his plot. Tanner would wait. Once he had his hands on the Armys money, then the tracker would die.
+ + + + + + +
Mary Travis was standing at JDs side when the stage pulled in just after four oclock, a notepad and pencil in hand as she watched the people step down. Strangely enough, the one man she dismissed as being nothing more than a salesman from back east stepped straight up to JD and held out his hand.
"Peacekeeper Dunne? My names Sam Butler. I believe youve been expecting me."
"Mr. Butler a pleasure!" JD shook his hand warmly, then indicated the blonde woman beside him. "Id like you to meet Mrs. Travis. She runs the town newspaper."
"I know." Butler removed his hat, took the hand that Mary held out, turned it over and kissed her fingers.
"I wired Mr. Butler some time ago," Mary explained. "Hes agreed to be interviewed for the paper."
"Its rare that I get to meet such a beautiful woman who knows what she wants in this mans world," he said, and to her utter embarrassment, Mary blushed!
"Why, thank you, Mr. Butler," she stammered. "I must say, youre not quite what we expected, either."
"I find in my line of work it pays to appear as innocuous as possible," he replied, and JD laughed.
"He talks like Ezra!" he whispered to Mary.
The Army buyer smiled, and offered his arm to the woman.
"Perhaps you could show me where the hotel is, and then we can talk about the interview over coffee. Mr. Dunne, Ill see you later."
JD watched in stunned amusement as Butler walked away, the blonde newspaper owner on his arm. Despite his appearance, there was a man who knew what he wanted and how to get it! Woe betide anyone who tried to rob him.
+ + + + + + +
Chris and Buck arrived back in Four Corners later that evening after a fruitless search of the surrounding area.
After tending to their horses, they made their way to the saloon, where they sat down to a late supper of potatoes and cold cuts. They were joined by Ezra, JD, and Josiah, and listened in incredulous silence to the young peacekeepers description of Butlers arrival.
"Did he really kiss her hand?" Buck wanted to know.
"He sure did!" JD nodded vigorously. "And Mary lapped it up."
"Of course," Ezra put in. "A woman of breeding always recognises a gentleman when she sees one."
"Maybe thats why she avoids you," Buck stated, and the others laughed.
Chris pushed his plate away and leaned back. "Where is he now?"
"Tucked up at the hotel," JD told him.
"And his money?"
"In the bank, of course!" The young peacekeeper was indignant. He wasnt that naïve.
"Dont get your feathers ruffled, kid," Buck said, placatingly. "Chris was only asking."
"Well, Mary got what she wanted. Tomorrow morning, before he rides out to the mustangers camp, hes meeting her at the office to give her an interview for the paper."
"Charm wins every time," Ezra muttered, but everybody ignored him.
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