The new moon hung in the darkened sky; full and heavy, her milk-white light ebbed to the land below, akin to a mothers breast that waits in supplication to nurture a child. The remainder of the heavens encompassed the glowing orb, velvety and black, pricked by a myriad of tiny diamonds. Below the uttered whispers merged with the sounds of the nature.
Crickets appeared from the small crevices of the earth invoking their song for all to hear, joined by the other nocturnal insects that roamed across the ever-changing ground.
Chris Larabee rolled a cheroot between his fingers, then lit it, scraping the sulphur match down the side of the wall beside him. He leaned back against the pine-slab building and inhaled a deep draw of tobacco, savouring its bittersweet taste.
Down the far end of the street corralled cattle the petulant bleating of calves and the deep-throat sounds of mother cows added to the nocturnal symphony.
The cattle had been driven hard from Texas and this like many other towns was just a stop along the trail. Another season for the cowhands that drove them and only one of many ambling herds that would follow the footsteps of their predecessors along the trails of Chisholm and Goodnight, Santa Fe and Oregon. And like their predecessors this herd of cattle was tough enough to live on cactus and mean enough to maim or kill a careless greenhorn.
Starting his patrol, Chris passed by Mary Travis home making sure that it was secure before he continued on. It wasnt long before he was at the livery where movement caught his eye. Uneasiness took hold of Larabee when the noises around him suddenly quietened. He himself stood entirely without motion, rigid and balanced. With cat like grace he eased himself into the livery to come face to face with a part of his past. His smile as he looked at Garcia was dispassionately contemptuous. His gun drawn he pulled the hammer back, the sound of the chamber locking into place cracked like a bullwhip in the still night.
But Joel Garcia didnt return his grin. He was a small man who relied on his quickness to get him by and guns were his business. "Larabee, I never thought Id see that day that you got careless." Garcia cocked his head to one side and signalled for his men to back him up.
Russ Cord was a tall, thickset man. His skin weather-stained by the many seasons hed endured of outdoor life. His big hands callused making the colt he held look small and awkward in his grasp.
To the left of Garcia a third man moved into Larabees line of sight. Cole Dixon. Built like a man whod spent his life hauling trees out of the ground by hand and manoeuvring them as though they were little more than a sapling. He towered heavy-shouldered over Garcia; his skin burned to a rich mahogany, testament to the long hours spent under the Arizona sun.
Chris Larabee sucked in a deep breath when he saw the two men in Garcias employ. His green eyes glistened, absorbing everything in sight. Larabee was a careful man; a trait learned over time and experience. With caution he studied the men before him, watching to see if any more would appear from the woodwork. "What do you want?" He asked, his voice low and intense.
Garcias smile was a cold one. "What I want you still have. Your life."
There was nothing new in this pressure now piling up so swiftly and darkly against Larabee. It was an old page out of his book, a book that hed read chapter and verse and knew each word by heart. The details were etched into his mind with epitaphic clarity. "Next time you send a man out to kill me," he said, "be sure that you go along to see that he does the job right."
"That was my mistake," snarled Garcia. "I never shouldve let Diego go after you alone." His right hand clawed to draw the gun from its holster. Before he had a chance to clear leather he felt a burning sensation blister across the top of his hand. "Cole!"
The one word command uttered by his employer had Cole Dixon aiming his gun at Larabee and firing.
The fire that burned in the brazier on the street was a red glow fading against the night. But still enough for Ezra Standish to make out the shadows of four men further up the street Larabee and three men he hadnt recalled seeing earlier on. A gambler, he always made a point of knowing who was in town. It had its benefits, monetary and otherwise.
Hed decided to adjourn from his present game of five-card stud poker and fill his lungs with fresh air, and watched with interest at the activity. While he watched he interlaced his fingers together and stretched then out in front of him. For several hours his fingers had danced swiftly and elegantly as he dealt the cards, to put a little feeling back into them now was a welcomed pleasure.
Standish could see one man on the far side of the building where the shot had come from but could no longer tell where Larabee or the other two men had gone. Wheres Tanner when you need him. Ezra silently scolded. He knew where the tracker was. Tanner had left Four Corners for two days to clear his head and escape the closed in feeling from being in one place too long.
Voices shouted. One harsh and almost bestial. Ezra heard the heavily accented voice and moved closer to the livery. The second shot came just Standish had reached the door.
It was like the kick of a mule. The impact of it was a huge explosion of violence that seemed to tear him off his feet. Ezra hadnt heard the roar of the gunfire but knew that hed been shot. An exquisite agony locked him rigid on the ground, powerless to move and left him struggling for breath.
Standish saw the man looking down at him, a sadistic gleam in his eyes. The mans grin was a thin, honed thing, like a drawn blade. "Chris." He cried in a hoarse whisper no longer able to keep the shocked numbness from invading his mind.
The sound of Ezras voice was swallowed up by the activity within the livery. The air was still think and heavy with the rancid smell of gun-smoke. Carefully Ezra edged around the side of the building then paused suddenly, expectant to hear the voice of his attacker. A sharp voice edged with pain startled him.
"Drop the gun. I know youre still there and Im just waiting for a reason to end your worthless life." Hissed a harsh sounding voice.
"Chris?" Standish tentatively called.
Chris lowered his gun, closed his eyes and released a pent up breath. "Ezra." His voice was calmer now. He opened the door and stepped aside taking in the once white silk shirt now stained crimson with Ezras blood.
"What just happened here?" Standish asked, the ground rushing up to impact brutally with his face.
Unable to stop Ezras fall, Larabee holstered his gun and eased himself onto the floor beside the fallen gambler. "Shouldve left when you had the chance." Chris said, turning his friend onto his back.
"Made a promise." A weakened voice replied. "Promised you I would never run out on you again."
Chris bent over the southerner, lifted his arm onto his chest and snorted. "Never doubted you would leave me again, Ezra." He looked around the now deserted livery, save himself and Ezra, searching for some way to get both of them some help.
Josiah Sanchez had been on the point of heading towards the saloon when he heard an exchange of gunfire come from the direction of the livery. He caught the fragmented glimpse of three men fleeing the area soon after. Halfway to the livery he was met by Four Corners resident healer Nathan Jackson. "You heard the shooting too?"
Nathan nodded his head and like Josiah had his gun drawn. "Yeah. Couldnt sleep and was taking a late walk. Figured with all that shootin someone was gonna need some help."
"Always open for business." Josiah returned.
"Just like your church. The door never closes."
Together the two men walked on exchanging what they both had seen and heard. With caution Josiah pulled the door open and gasped inwardly at the sight that met his eyes. Ezra was splayed out on the dirt floor while beside him; Chris leaned with his back against the ladder to the hayloft, his gun resting on his lap.
In silence Josiah and Nathan looked over each mans wounds watched by two pairs of very glazed eyes. "Weve got to get them to the clinic, now." Jackson ordered.
Glancing down, Josiah saw the stain of blood on Larabees pants, gritted his teeth, thrust one arm under the injured mans shoulder and half-dragged half-carried him to Nathans clinic. "Hold on tight or youre gonna fall flat on your face." The ex-preacher advised.
"That possibility had occurred to me." Chris laughed and immediately grimaced when a pain filled dagger lanced through his side before succumbing to the black shroud that had been waiting to envelope his mind.
JD Dunne stood in the doorway of his office. The appointed Sheriff of Four Corners he took pride in his job. Usually he would take a concerned interest in the town, the people that lived there and the strangers that arrived either by stage or horseback. But today he only watched for one person Vin Tanner. Two days had passed and the trackers arrival was now due.
Finally JD saw what hed been searching for all day. The high-spirited black loped lazily down the street with its rider, the setting suns red flare blazing the sky behind them.
After that came a sudden coldness of dread akin to the impact of a fist and he saw the paled face of the young Sheriff. "JD?" His voice seemed out of its normal pitch. There was a tightness in it, a kind of thin singing that he had known once before in his life. A sudden memory of the doctor telling him that his mother had died. And now, the edge of the same fear was rushing back at him, beating at him, tearing at him. A fear of once more being alone. "What happened, JD? Whats wrong?"
Wearily, Chris lay back on the bed and scowled up at the ceiling of the clinic. Nathan had kept him confined to bed for the past two days and it was beginning to wear on him. If he had been honest with himself he wouldve admitted that he didnt have the energy to even consider getting out of bed. He felt angry and as he had done since hed regained consciousness berated himself for letting his guard down. How many times had he warned JD not to take things for granted only to find that he had not heeded his own advice.
Too exhausted to continue his self-inflicted tirade he lay back and closed his eyes. He was asleep by the time Nathan came back. The healer knowing his patients present condition did not disturb him, instead left him to get all the sleep and rest he could.
Vin Tanner stepped into the room, which was faintly lit with coal oil lanterns and saw his best friend lying on the only bed the clinic afforded. A white bandage covered the top of Larabees head while another was wrapped around his waist. He quietly watched his best friend sleep and leant over with his head in his hands silently cursing his need for a little self-indulgence of freedom from town life.
Finally persuaded by Chris friend of many years and the ladies man of the seven, - Buck Wilmington, Vin left his vigil promising to return in an hour or so.
When Larabee next awoke the early morning sun lit the interior of the clinic with spears of red lances, stabbing through the small cracks in the pine-slab walls. The redness behind his eyelids from the sun woke him. He squinted at the bright shaft of light and finally focused on the familiar form of the longhaired Texan tracker stretched out in the chair beside him.
His slight movement on the bed to make himself more comfortable drew the attention on Vin Tanner. "Hey cowboy. Thought you was plannin on sleepin the whole day away."
Jade green eyes met with limpid blue and locked. The unspoken words between the two men deafening. From their initial meeting in the dusty street theyd shared a bond of being able to interpret the others actions without the need for words.
In the wordless exchange the gunslinger and the tracker had shared their hurt, worry and concern. Vin had offered his apology for not being in town when Chris needed him - and Chris his understanding that Vin needed time to be able to breathe again without being suffocated by the town and the people.
"So ya gonna tell me who attacked you n Ez or do I gotta play tweny questions?"
"A dead man." Came Larabees blunt reply.
"What? He is dead or he will be when ya catch im?"
Chris sighed and shook his head, a move he quickly regretted when small silver sparks danced before his eyes. "You aint gonna let this drop are you?"
"Nope." Vin leaned back in the chair and folded his arms.
"It is not any of your concern, Vin." Chris coolly replied, enunciating each word as he spoke.
"Three gunslingers come into town and take target practice with two of my family, hell yeah it IS my concern. Dont ya go pullin none of your shit with me. If it was me what had been hurt youd be huntin the bastard down from here to Bolivia."
Larabee blew out a long breath and recounted what had taken place and what type of man Joel Garcia was. Vin nodded, collected his hat from the small table in the corner of the room and opened the door.
"Vin, stop!" Larabees voice cut like a whip cracking across the backs of a team of mules. His eyes narrowed and his lips pursed. "This aint gonna be like a bounty hunt. I dont want you going after him. Hell kill you."
"Chance I gotta take, Chris." Without another word Vin left the clinic and with it the string of angry curses that filled the air.
"Damn you Tanner. Dont you walk away from me. Tanner!" Chris writhed in pain on the bed, assaulted by a vicious coughing spell after raising his voice.
Against the wishes of his best friend, Vin packed the gear he needed, saddled Peso and was preparing to leave the town hed come to call home when approached by Buck and JD.
"You sure you know what youre doing?" Buck asked, concern evident in his voice. "You dont have to do this, you know."
"Larabee send you over here to tell me that?" Vin asked, securing his saddlebags.
"Chris dont want you to go." JD added.
"What he wants n what Im goin tdo are two diffrent things. If it was me lyin up in Nathans clinic, Chrisd be out huntin them bastards down." Without another word he led Peso from his stall and swung his leg over the saddle.
"Reckon you know what youre doing." Nodded Buck, affirming to himself that Vin was right roles reversed Chris would be out tracking down Vins attackers.
"Aint just fer Chris," Vin said and rubbed his eyes. "Doin it fer Ezra as well." He lightly touched Pesos flanks and made a kissing noise moving the horse forward.
Outside of town hed picked up the two-day trail easily enough and followed the distinct patterns made by one of the horses. Tanner was one of the best at his job and could track better than a lot of the Kiowa and Comanche hed lived amongst. Hed learned to look for signs in the sky, birds, and animals moving in a particular direction and took note of smells and sounds around him. He saw things that most men would not bother to glance at or would think were insignificant a scuff-mark on a rock or an upturned stone. Hair left against a boulder or a tree told him the colour of the horse he was tracking.
By the time he rode out of the timber belt and came upon the open stretches of rock and huge up-thrusting boulders where the narrow mountain trial dipped to the valley, no rider moved along the trail. The main stage trail lay far below him, down in the valley and he could occasionally make it out through gaps in the trees, a scar of grey against the overall greenness.
He was half a mile down the trail, his horse picking its way forward with care among the treacherous boulders that lay strewn along the narrow, winding trail, when he heard the first faint whispers of sound in the distance. The sun had gone down behind the western horizon and the redness in the sky had given way to the deep, cool blue and indigo. He paused for a long moment at the head of the descending trail, sitting loose and relaxed in the saddle. But it was only his body that was relaxed, muscles loosened a little. His mind was still alert and tensed. He felt a sense of uneasiness as he rode on.
"Hey, Ezra." JD greeted the well-groomed gambler, "hows your arm?"
"With the proper rest and care a full recovery from the grievous harm that has rendered me incapacitated is anticipated."
"Dang, Ezra, you was only shot in the shoulder." Buck grinned and unconsciously clasped the wounded man on his injured shoulder.
Ezra flashed wide eyes at Buck as a forgotten pain in his shoulder announced itself. "And with your boorish attempts at seeing to my well being I fear it shall be sometime yet before I am able to return to my bestowed duties of keeping the environs of Four Corners safe from miscreants."
"So youll be up to doing your own patrol tonight while I bestow my body upon the divine Miss Maree." Buck smiled, his eyebrows moving suggestively.
"Is that the name of the unfortunate woman who has lost the ability to produce a sane thought." Standish countered.
"Buck, did you forget that Chris said you had to do Ezras patrol for him while he recovers?"
"Thank you, Mister Dunne and Mr Wilmington is there any message that we could perhaps pass on to Miss Maree?" While Ezra didnt physically show any signs of smiling at Bucks predicament, the expression in his voice said it all. "Good evening, gentlemen." He added and raised two fingers to the brim of his hat in acknowledgement.
Still sensing that something wasnt right Vin sort out a campsite that afforded him not only shelter but also cover from any predator two footed or four. The cause of his concern soon made itself evident a hastily cleared campsite. "Well at least we know were on the right track." Tanner mused. Peso pulled his head against the bit as if in agreement and blew out his sides. Satisfied that he was indeed alone, Tanner unsaddled Peso and set camp. The night, cool and clear brought with it the nocturnal yowl of a wolf that touches off endless wanderings of the mind.
It was late afternoon before Vin Tanner reached the long line of timber, which reared up the slopes of the low hills. Below him lay low a valley that had been truly blessed by Mother Nature and all the gifts she had bestowed upon it. Like an oil painting by Renoir, that Ezra had told him about, the valley truly was a masterful piece of art, carefully created by the earths loving touch. He halted his mount and took in the awe-inspiring view.
The trail wound down through the canopy of giant Ponderosa pines, their heady scent wafting on the breeze as delicate as a babys kiss, reached him. For a moment he allowed himself the pleasure of a carefree moment. A moment in time to forget the world and its problems - his problems as well. Vin leaned back in the saddle and stretched his stiff back muscles. His self-indulgent moment was broken by Pesos impatience.
The black stamped his feet angrily at the ground and pulled on reins anxious to be moving again towards the river that promised a cool reward.
"I get the hint. I aint stupid," Vin groused and gave the horse his head.
Vin glanced at the creek, running fast and white, creaming with foam where the water splashed and raced among the sharp-pointed boulders which thrust up from the rocky bed, then put his mount to the bridge, listening to the hollowness of its hoofbeats on the wood. Somewhere close by the bridge, but still out of sight, he was able to pick out the sound of the falls, which had produced this creek, dropping with a steady thunder down the side of the rock face. The mist from the falls lay in the air with a thin dampness that touched his face and neck and brought a quiet coolness to everything. Even the vegetation here seemed to grow more densely and lushly than anywhere else along the trail.
Vin seated himself wearily on a low knoll of ground, in the shade of a tall tree, which overhung the water. Beside him Peso drank his fill from the chilled waters. The wind which swept along the river was good, its smell clean and fresh. While his horse attended to his needs, Vin did likewise and withdrew some jerky from his saddlebag. Not much of a meal but he promised himself a more nourishing meal of rabbit or rattlesnake whatever chose to cross his path first. For now he was content to watch the waters of the lower falls cascade over the mossy rocks.
"Cmon were wastin daylight." Tanner growled, fighting Peso to get moving again.
He turned a sharp corner in the trail just beyond the far end of the bridge and came suddenly on the bare patch, which had been cleared away at the very foot of the mountain wall. Here, there was a wooden shack; a utility shed stood a few feet off to the side, with the far wall set simply against the bare rock. The contrast between the grey, weathered rock and the tall green-topped pines that marched away in every direction from the hut was tremendous, almost breath-taking. A couple of mangy dogs came scuffing towards him, stood on top of a small knoll, snuffing the air at him, their back arched and teeth bared.
"Thats close nuff, mister. Ya jus get down off a that horse nice n easy like."
Vin obediently dismounted and moved to where the stranger indicated, dragging his spurs over the yard, raking up little snakeheads of dust under his feet as he walked. The dogs followed Vin to the rundown shack, snarling forward but keeping a safe distance as if unsure of the dust covered man.
Crows feet and squint marks were chiselled into the hammered-copper face of the old man and steady eyes met the gaze of a stranger openly. "Spose ytell me what ya want round here. Why ya come sneakin up in ta a mans home." His rifle aimed at the square of Tanners chest.
"I wasnt sneakin," Vin defended himself. "Ifn I wanted tsneak up on ya I wouldnt be ridin in here in plain sight now would I?" His eyes hard and blue like chips of agate, stared straight ahead of him towards his captor.
"Well what ya call it then? You lookin fer somethin or jest ridin?"
"Why? It gonna make some diffrence for you decide ta shoot me?" Vin snorted.
The older man sniffed and ran his left hand over his face, smoothing down the unshaven whiskers. "Nope. Reckon you might be part of that gang what rode through here a day ago. Maybe I might decide on totin yer hide ta Cricklewood "
"Is that where them fellas is headed?" Vin forestalled.
"Reckon so. But you bein part of their gang n all would know that." Grunted the other and signalled for his dogs to stand guard.
Vin shook his head and sighed. "Mister, I aint part of their gang. Them fellas that rode through here shot two of mfriends and I aim ta find em."
The older man stolidly accepted the information and gave a brief nod of his head. He lowered his rifle and called the dogs off. "Dont know if thats such a good idea. Theres three of em n only one a you. Theyd be the meanest cusses I seen in a long whiles."
Vin cocked his head to one said and leaned down to pat one of the dogs. "You figure Im a fool fer tryin?"
The other shrugged his shoulders. "I could tell ya what I reckon but dont rightly think its gonna change yer mind none. Jus curious is all," said the old man openly. "Ya figgerin on huntin down them fellas then?"
"Yeah," Vin smiled. "Could do it a lot quicker ifn ya gave me some directions ta Cricklewood."
"Could do that."
The sun flamed in a vast haze of red and scarlet as it touched the rim of the world, touching the tops of the tall hills with flame, leaving the floor of the deep valley in a hazy shadow. The very stillness of the hills spoke its own voice of tension. It was if the world was waiting tensely for something to happen, something which had been hanging fire for some time now, but was now about to break. It was the feeling he had whenever a storm lay too close to the horizon.
By the time he reached the outskirts of the backwater town of Cricklewood the starlight laid a faint trembling glow over the trail and there was still a smell of dust in the air, indicating that the trails had been recently used.
He guessed this town would be like a score of others he had known. Full of dodgers, men running from something, be it law; others of their kind seeking revenge or an angry father with one hand on the end of a shot gun and the other on his child endowed daughter. Vin figured the best trade the saloon got was from men such as these.
Tying his horse in front of the saloon he entered and immediately moved to one side, letting his eyes adjust to the murky interior of the smoke filled room. He seated himself at a table near the door, his eyes taking in the crowd. With a bounty on his own head one couldnt be too careful.
Most men he saw were obviously cowmen worn chaps criss-crossed with scars from use and like the many saloons hed been in this one was no different. Like the Standish Tavern back in Four Corners
There was a look on the barkeeps face which indicated that he expected trouble and Vin felt the tension rise a little more in him.
The patrons had seen far too many fights in the saloon not to know when one was about to break, but Tanner was still a little unsure of the direction from which the danger would come. It was as events had begun to crowd him the moment he stepped through the door of the saloon and this was something he didnt like. His fingers on his left hand tightened convulsively around the glass in front of him and his right hand snaked down towards his sawn off shotgun while he watched the four men sitting at a table opposite him.
Hed followed his prey to this backwater town and now here it was less than five feet away boasting of the way he had killed the great Chris Larabee. Vin felt the tightness grow in him again, tensing the muscles of his body. Y came close ya sonuvabitch this time the tale will mind ttell, how I kilt Joel Garcia. The tracker vowed to himself.
There was coldness in Garcias eyes and hardness on his face as he recounted his tale of what Chris Larabee had done to him in his past. The two that surrounded Garcia held their heads erect and proud as though they sat as kings, with clear disdain for those lesser souls around them.
Vin did not permit his gaze to remain long on these men - the contempt he felt for them slowly ate at him. Instead he decided to bide his time and wait until Garcia was alone. Three against one were not odds that he favoured in a territory that was not familiar to him.
The night drew on while the activity inside the saloon heightened, the talk grew louder and the cards dealt more swiftly across the felt covered tables. Vin sipped his drink slowly and watched a familiar face approach Garcia. Occasionally the attention of the newcomer was directed towards Vin making him feel more than uncomfortable. If ever there was a time that he wished for the company of the rest of the seven it was now. He tried to turn his focus elsewhere but to no avail. He could hear his heart pounding in his ears when Garcia approached.
"Hear ya been lookin for me." Garcia growled pushing the small table out of the way and sending the empty glass to the floor.
With one swift kick Joel Garcia kicked the chair out from Tanner and sent him sprawling across the floor. For a full minute the piano continued to play, the talk continued, cards continued to fall, glasses rattled and laughter rolled out from the crowd. And then everything grew silent. Patrons watched ominously as Garcia stood over the downed man, his gun drawn and ready. "Reckon Larabee must be dead ifn youve come out here by yourself to take me in," Garcia sneered and raised his head in an arrogant manner motioning for his men to move in.
Vin pushed himself to his knees and wearily rose to his feet his right hand edging towards his gun. He stopped at Garcias warning.
"Wouldnt try it. I can shuck my gun quicker than a rattler can strike."
"I think the cowboy needs to learn some manners." Dixon snarled and dropped his shoulder, rammed it into Vins chest and slammed him backwards.
Vins shoulders ached and his knuckles were rubbed raw. On the fifth punch he began to wonder if Dixon would ever yield. He felt the hard right of Dixon come again. Two more fast blows, crushing in naked power, set Tanner flat on his back.
Tanner had been schooled in the hard, rough-and-tumble realm of Kiowa and Comanche fighting. He used his knees, his elbows, he head butted and kicked. A sickening knee in the groin doubled Dixon over and he started to lose his balance. He grabbed desperately for a near-by table sending cards and money flying through the air.
The effects of the alcohol were gone in the sullen boiling anger, which had arisen within Cord. He had waited his turn and unleashed a savage fury hungering for a chance to beat the longhaired cowboy into a senseless pulp.
There was a bright shine in the mans eyes and that twisted look about his thin-lipped mouth that told Vin all he needed to know about Cord.
Countering his savage intent Vin ducked and rocked the bigger man with a few of his own blows. The next more deadly than the first. But Cord gave as good as he took. A meaty blow sent Tanner staggering backwards into the bar sending the multi-coloured bottles lined up on it to the floor. Leaning on the bar he drew his legs up to his chest and kicked hard into Cords sternum.
Tanner took advantage of the brief respite to breathe slowly and evenly, forcing his thudding, racing heart into a more normal beat inside his ribs. His body felt bruised and battered, and there was a sharp, shooting agony in the lower part of his back. Grinning a little, Vin leaned against the bar and waited, he knew hed hurt the other man and hurt him hard. The other was breathing more slowly now, his great barrel chest heaving with the effort.
"So, yall wanna try this the easy way or the hard way?"
"Go thell," snarled Cord.
"Probly will, eventually, but aint plannin on goin any time soon." He briefly scanned the room searching for one person but cam up empty. "Whered Garcia go?" Instinctively he grounded his right leg and used it to pivot on when Cord lunged at him again. He brought his left knee up delivering a bone-crunching blow to Cords chest.
Tanner watched as Cord staggered backward and dropped to the floor and gathered a handful of beer-soaked sawdust from in front of the bar. With quickness borne of desperation the bigger man threw the sawdust into Tanners eyes, blinding him.
Vin couldnt see Cord but could smell the foul stench of his breath on his face as the other tightened his grip on him. Like a boa constrictor crushing its prey Cord continued to crush the air from Vins starving lungs.
Driven by instinct and a fight for survival Tanner called on the fighting skills he had learned when living amongst the Kiowa and Comanches. The will to live had welled deep within Vin; he had fought his adversary and won, but not without cost.
He heard the harsh ragged intake of Cords breath.
But even then, with the muzzle of the gun shoved hard against his spine, Tanner was not all that sure he could hold off Dixon let alone Cord.
Dixon gouged the muzzle of his weapon along Vins spine.
In spite of the gun in his back, Tanner turned. He turned with a go-to-hell slowness that slid the gun muzzle around his short ribs and across the flat of his stomach, as though daring Dixon to shoot.
Garcia stepped out of the shadows pleased with the results of the fight, withdrew a cigar from his pocket and lit it with a quick-flaring sulphur match, and inhaled deeply while he fanned the match out with his right hand. "Get him outside and tie him to his horse." He turned to the older man beside him and grinned. "Here old timer." He said taking two new gold pieces from his waistcoat pocket. "Go and buy you and your hound dogs a decent meal."
When Chris Larabee made it to the table outside the saloon, the sun had just lifted itself clear of the eastern skyline. The radiant heat beat against his face. The morning sun sent brilliant shards of white-gold light across the street, not quite reaching all the areas still darkened by shadow.
The dust raked up by Bucks spurs as he walked in the shadows sent glistening particles into the air. Chris withdrew a cheroot from his breast pocket and waited for Buck to join him. "Any word?"
Larabee slowly shook his head and leaned his head back so that it was just touching the wall lit the cheroot, blowing smoke into the air. "Maybe today." He softly said, his words laced with a tinge of despair.
"Hell send word when he can, Chris." Buck replied, seating himself at Larabees right-hand side.
The blonde haired man nodded more in effort to convince himself rather than to agree with Wilmington. He closed his eyes and recalled his rather one-sided discussion with Vin about his foolhardiness for pursuing Garcia and his men.
"CHRIS! Chris!" JD shouted riding his mount at a gallop into town. "I found him. I found his tracks. I know where Vin is headed."
Chris sat up in the chair at that, the cheroot forgotten in his fingers, the smoke curling upwards. "Where?" His one word voiced more feeling than he had verbally shown since Vins departure from town. Clumsily he stood up, sending the wooden chair crashing to the sidewalk behind him. "Weve got to get moving."
Within minutes the rest of the seven peacekeepers were ready. Horses saddled and waiting for their owners commands.
Larabees trademark order had them spurring their horses into action. "Lets ride." His voice carried the authority due to a man who was not only their leader, but also respected and very much revered friend.
Hours of long, hard riding had begun to take toll on Chris recovering body. Ezra too, was feeling the strain when his horse stumbled.
Buck assumed control and reined his horse to a halt. "Chris, we cant keep going like this. The horses need a break. Standishs horse is plumb wore out." He waited for Larabees reaction. "Sos mine." He added, letting his grey have his head.
Chris shrugged his shoulders and blew out a long breath. "We ride as soon as the horses are ready."
"Chris, well find him. Why dont you take the time to get some rest?" Pleaded Nathan, not wanting to see Chris collapse in an exhausted heap.
"I said wed ride when the horses are ready. Which part of that dont you understand?!" Chris voice was strangely cold and distant.
Nathan gave him a sharp, keen glance, suddenly arrested by that remark. "What is it goin ttake before you see ya cant keep pushin yerself like this. Seems you aint happy unless Im forever patchin you up." The healer sighed heavily in controlled anger and took a long draw from his canteen. "Damn it, Chris, even your own body is betrayin you. It knows that it needs trest but the message dont seem ta be reachin that fool head atop its shoulders." He said finally, weighing his words with care.
To be continued...
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