Summary: Camaraderie between Vin, Chris, Ezra and Buck is the primary focus.
Author's Notes: This is not a true sequel, but does continue family relationships begun in Reunion. Ezra's father makes his debut. Eternal gratitude to Judy and Aramis for error detection and advice. Many thanks to Raquel for Spanish assistance and to Christine for background information. Feedback is welcome.
Size: Approx 120K
"MISTER VIN! MISTER VIN!" Vin Tanner, on his way to the sheriff's office in Four Corners, turned to see little Billy Travis running after him.
"Hey, Billy!" Vin said, as the child caught up to him. "What's goin' on?"
"I got something to show you." The boy grasped Vin's hand and tried to tug him in the direction of his mother's newspaper office.
"Sorry, Billy. I don't have time right now. I gotta git to a meetin' with your grandpa over in the sheriff's office."
"You got time," the child insisted. "Grandpa's still talking to Ma. Come on. This won't take long. I promise."
Vin relented. "Okay, Billy. I'll come with ya."
Billy led him inside the newspaper office and to a wooden box in the back of the room. "There's only these left, and Ma said we hafta give 'em all away. You can have either one you want." Inside the box were a couple of yellow striped kittens. Billy picked up one of the kittens and thrust it into Vin's hands. "They're really good and they're smart, too. You could keep one of 'em in your wagon."
Vin stroked the small, purring bundle of fur. "Billy, I can't keep a pet. You need to find somebody who's gonna be around all the time and can give your kittens a real home." He put the kitten back in the box. "You keep lookin'. You'll find a home fer the little critters." He gave the boy a pat on the head. "I gotta be goin', Billy."
When Vin walked into the sheriff's office, the other regulators were already gathered, awaiting the arrival of Judge Orin Travis. Chris Larabee, Josiah Sanchez, Ezra Standish and Nathan Jackson were standing around with an air of expectancy. Buck Wilmington was perched on the edge of the sheriff's desk, while JD Dunne was leaning back in the chair behind the desk. JD pulled out a pocket knife and handed it to Buck. "What d'you think of this, Buck? I bought it yesterday."
Buck unfolded the knife and examined it. "Nice," he commented. "What happened to your old knife?"
"I still have it. This one's a present for Casey."
Buck raised an eyebrow. "Casey! Kid, why on earth would you give Casey something like this?"
JD was defensive. "We're going rabbit huntin'. She'll need a good knife to skin the rabbit with."
Ezra rolled his eyes. "What young lady could resist so romantic a gesture?"
"Don't sound like the kinda thing ta give ta a girl," Vin weighed in.
"How would you know, Vin?" JD scoffed. "You'd probably give a girl a bunch of eagle feathers or some Indian arrowheads."
Buck spoke in exasperation. "Kid, everything I tell you about women must go in one ear and out the other."
"But, Buck, Casey ain't like a regular girl. That's why I like to spend time with her. She's like a boy... kind of."
Buck shook his head. "When it comes to women, JD, you don't know your ass from your elbow." Vin smirked at the remark, prompting Buck to add. "You're no big improvement, Vin. JD puts his foot in his mouth, but you go all shy around women, and they can hardly get a word out of you."
The door to the office opened and Judge Travis came in. "Gentlemen!" He nodded to the lawmen. "I have an assignment for some of you. There are four prisoners currently being held over in Julestown. The governor has requested that they be escorted to Kansas City to stand trial."
"You want us to escort them all the way to Kansas City?" Chris asked.
"No. You'll only need to pick them up and escort them as far as El Paso. Other lawmen will take over from there."
"Sounds like they're important prisoners," Nathan commented.
"They are... if by important, you mean vicious and deadly. They've robbed banks, trains and stagecoaches in Missouri, Kansas, Texas and the Oklahoma territory. Men have been killed by them for little or no reason and women have been assaulted."
"Who are they?" Josiah asked.
"Until recently, we weren't certain of their identities. They always kept their faces covered and were able to keep their identities hidden. The number of members in the gang has fluctuated between six and eight. One of the gang members left and went out on his own. He was caught and gave us the names of the other members. The names of the men being held in Julestown are Zeke Harper, Emmett Harper, Frank Richardson and Luis Garza. The Harper brothers are the leaders of the gang."
Chris and Buck had exchanged looks at the mention of the Harpers. Buck whistled softly. "The Harper brothers! Chris and me knew them a long time ago."
"Then you know what to expect from them. Because these four men are regarded as being so dangerous, I want four of you to escort them. Chris... Buck, I want both of you to go. Vin, you're experienced with bringing in dangerous men. I want you to go, as well."
JD was eager to volunteer. "I'll go, Judge."
The judge regarded him with a skeptical eye. "Son, I don't think that you have sufficient experience for this assignment."
"I can do it," JD insisted.
"I prefer that the fourth man be either Nathan, Josiah or Ezra."
Ezra quickly spoke up. "I do have pressing business here in town which demands my attention, Judge Travis."
"Card games don't fit my definition of pressing business," the older man said dryly. "I'm sure that Nathan and Josiah could also find reasons to stay in town. To make it fair, you three will draw straws. The man who draws the shortest straw will go to Julestown." The judge walked over to a broom standing in the corner, plucked a straw from it and broke the straw into three pieces. Holding the pieces enclosed in his clenched fist, he allowed each man to draw a straw. When the men had made their choices, he said, "Well, gentlemen, let's see who's going to be taking a trip."
The men compared straws and Ezra's face fell. "Yer the winner, Ez," Vin said gleefully. He clapped the gambler on the shoulder, and Ezra gave him an annoyed look. Vin smiled back, his blue eyes twinkling.
The judge eyed Vin curiously. It was unusual to see the tracker's youth break through his customary settled facade.
"I suppose that it would be too much to expect additional remuneration for this duty," Ezra said, his expression glum.
"As a matter of fact," the judge answered, "I've been instructed to issue an additional two weeks of pay to each of you." Ezra brightened somewhat, as the judge withdrew his money clip and issued each man fourteen dollars. Judge Travis stepped to the door. "I'll expect those of you going to Julestown to leave first thing in the morning." He nodded to all of them. "Good day, gentlemen."
The men split up after the meeting, and Vin went to his wagon. Curled up asleep on his bedroll was one of Billy Travis's kittens. Vin looked around for Billy, knowing that the boy had placed it there, but Billy was nowhere in sight. Vin was about to scoop up the kitten and return it to the newspaper office, when a thought struck him.
I bet Miz Nettie would want it. She did say that her barn cat had disappeared, and she needed another cat ta keep the mice away.
After getting Peso from the livery, Vin picked up the kitten and rode out to Nettie Wells' house, holding the small creature next to him. On the way to the Wells homestead, Vin rode through a meadow filled with autumn wildflowers, blooming in purple and gold. He looked down and spoke to the kitten. "Think I'll take Miz Nettie some a' these flowers." Vin leaned over and broke off a generous handful of the long stemmed flowers. When he rode into the widow's yard, he didn't see Nettie, but Casey Wells was hanging out clothes on a line.
"Hey, Vin!" Casey greeted him. The pigtailed girl was dressed in her usual tomboyish attire of pants and shirt.
"Casey!" Vin dismounted a little awkwardly, trying to hold on to the flowers and the wriggling kitten. Small, sharp claws dug into his hand, causing him to thrust the flowers at Casey.
"For me?" Casey asked, her brown eyes shining with pleasure.
"Uh, no... I mean... I brought this here kitten and.... "
"Oh, you brought me a kitten, too! It's so cute," Casey squealed, taking the kitten from Vin. "JD never thinks to give me things like this. Wait till I show Nettie. "AUNT NETTIE! COME LOOK AT WHAT VIN BROUGHT ME!"
Nettie emerged from the barn, a welcoming smile on her lined face. She gave Vin a hug. "It's good to see you again, boy. What's this you brought for Casey?"
"Well, I, uh.... "
"Aren't the flowers pretty?" Casey broke in. "Vin brought me a kitten, too. It's like he knew exactly what I wanted." Casey snuggled the kitten against her cheek and gazed up at Vin with new found interest.
Aw, hell! This ain't turnin' out right.
"Casey, why don't you take the flowers inside and put them in water," Nettie suggested. "And the kitten would probably like some milk."
"Okay, Aunt Nettie." Casey looked hopefully at the sharpshooter. "Why don't you come inside for a visit, Vin."
Vin shook his head. "Can't this time, Casey. I gotta be gittin' back ta town. I'm leavin' first thing in the mornin'."
Casey seemed disappointed. "I reckon I'll see you later, then. Thank you for the flowers and the kitten. Bye, Vin."
Casey started towards the house and Nettie turned to Vin. "Where're you off to tomorrow?"
"Julestown. Chris, Buck, Ezra an' me are goin' ta pick up some prisoners. We're takin 'em ta El Paso."
"They must be pretty dangerous if it's going to take four of you."
"They got a dangerous reputation."
"Hmm. Maybe it's a good thing your pa's still in Texas gettin' his ranch sold. He'd be worried about you."
"I can look after myself, Miz Nettie." He paused. "Seems funny ta have a pa again."
Nettie patted his arm. "You'll get used to it, boy. You need somebody else to keep an eye on you. Lord knows I can't do it all."
Vin gave her a grin and mounted his horse. "You been doin' a pretty good job so far, Miz Nettie."
"I try. You be careful with them prisoners of yours and mind Mr. Larabee. He's another one that's looking out for you."
Vin gave her another grin and touched the brim of his hat. "Yes, ma'am."
No matter that Vin was a sharpshooter and a former bounty hunter, the widow was convinced that he needed looking after. Nettie watched him ride away with mixed feelings. She was concerned for his safety, but pleased by the changes that she had detected in him. He smiled more often and was less of a loner. The reunion with Matt Tanner had turned out to be exactly what the young tracker needed.
Following the meeting with Judge Travis, Ezra returned to his saloon. Three men, bearing disgruntled expressions, were leaving the table where his mother sat. Maude Standish was still raking in her winnings and looking quite pleased with herself. Ezra poured himself a drink and went over to her. Maude interrupted her counting. "Oh, there you are, darlin'," she drawled. How did your meetin' go?"
Ezra grabbed a chair and sat down. "Tomorrow morning, I am leaving to help escort four miscreants to El Paso."
"That's out of the question, Ezra. I need you here, not running around the countryside on some fool's errand."
"Judge Travis thinks otherwise, Mother."
"Perhaps I could talk to Judge Travis and charm him into lettin' you stay."
"It is too late for that."
"Drat the luck! Your father could arrive at any time. I was countin' on you to explain my situation to the people here in Four Corners and smooth things over for me. I don't have time to call on everyone and prepare them for your father's awkward appearance. I'm going to be too busy running my new hotel."
Ezra almost choked on his drink. His green eyes reflected his dismay. "Hotel?"
"Yes, darlin'. One of the gentlemen I was playin' cards with ran short of funds and put up his hotel. I am now the new owner."
"Which hotel do you now own?"
"The one down at the end of the street. I believe it's called the Dusty Trails Inn." She frowned. "I can't say that I care for that name."
"Have you ever set foot in the place, Mother?"
"The locals refer to it as the Cow Pie Inn. It has a leaking roof, rotten wood, peeling wallpaper, a rickety staircase and bedbugs, or so I'm told."
Maude was adamant. "Then I'll stay here as long as it takes to have the necessary renovations done. Maude Standish does not associate herself with inferior accommodations."
Ezra put his head in his hands and ran his fingers through his hair. "You aren't planning on setting up a saloon in your hotel and trying to put me out of business, as you did once before, are you?"
"No, darlin'. Competition makes you so peevish." Maude folded the money that she had won and stuck it in her purse. "By the way, who's going with you to escort those ruffians that you mentioned?"
"Chris, Vin and Buck."
"That's reassurin'. They're all experienced gunmen from what I've heard." She reached over to flick a speck of lint from Ezra's stylish, charcoal gray jacket. "I hope that you have something suitably shabby to wear while on the trail. I wouldn't recommend that you wear this. No matter how fine the tailoring, a coat is never quite the same once it has a bullet hole in it."
Ezra's reply was mocking. "I am touched by your concern for my wardrobe, Mother. It so happens that I do have a rather old, brown jacket."
"Good." It was obvious that Maude's mind was on other matters. She leaned over and gave Ezra a brief peck on the cheek. "Take care, darlin'."
From the saloon, Maude went to her room at the Gem Hotel. She changed into a blue, silk dress, which she considered to be especially flattering. She then headed for Josiah's church. The graying regulator was putting in a stained glass window when he heard the door open and looked around to see Maude entering the church. Josiah's face lit up with pleasure at the sight of the middle aged, but undeniably fetching woman. He put down his tools and came forward to meet her.
"Good afternoon, Josiah," Maude greeted him. "I can see that you're busy, but what I have to tell you is more important."
Josiah wrinkled his brow. "Is something wrong, Maude?" Taking her elbow, he guided her to a church pew, and they sat down.
Keeping her face averted, Maude pulled out a handkerchief and began dabbing at her dry eyes. With wry amusement, Josiah noted that despite giving the impression of being distraught, Maude had managed to bring with her a handkerchief embroidered with tiny blue flowers which were a perfect match for the shade of her dress. Maude sighed deeply and turned to face the regulator. "Josiah, I want to make a confession."
"I'm not a priest, Maude," he said gently.
"But you do live in the back of a church. That's close enough."
"You have a unique perspective on things, Maude. Tell me, are you in some kind of trouble? Is there anything that I can do to help?"
Maude gave him a beseeching look, which she knew to be effective, having practiced it numerous times in front of a mirror. "You must help me, Josiah. I was counting on Ezra, but he has abandoned me in my hour of need. You see, I find myself in an awkward social predicament."
"Yes. I'm afraid that I've told a slight fib, and now I'm about to be found out." Maude bit her lip. "Everyone thinks that I'm a widow, but my husband happens to be alive."
Josiah was both dumfounded and disappointed. "Your last husband is still alive?"
"My first. Wade Standish. Ezra's father. My last four marriages have been shams."
"I'd have to say that this is more than a slight fib."
"Yes... well, I've told bigger ones," Maude said blithely. "Wade is planning on coming to Four Corners. He cares nothing for my embarrassment."
Josiah shook his head. "Maude, I don't know what I can do about your deception."
Maude grasped his hands with her own. "You know everyone in town. You can tactfully let people know that I have a husband, so that no one is shocked when Wade shows up."
Josiah was perplexed. "I'm not sure that I can explain something like that. How did you get yourself into such a situation?"
Maude gazed up at the ceiling, as if expecting to find the answer there.
"Maude?" Josiah prompted.
Maude took a deep breath before beginning. "I eloped with Wade when I was seventeen. Wade was a riverboat gambler and the most dashing man I'd ever met. We were married by the riverboat captain. For years, we traveled up and down the Mississippi, stopping off in St. Louis and New Orleans whenever we felt like it. I loved the kind of life we led. Other women were tied down to dull, dreary lives with their dull, dreary husbands. That wasn't for me. There were always new people and new places and no home nor children to be bothered with. There was constant adventure and fun." She paused before continuing. "Wade was indifferent to the idea of having children, and I had never wanted any. I thought that fate had co-operated with me, and then I found out that Ezra was on the way. Once he got used to the idea, Wade was quite pleased with the prospect of having a child. I became more reconciled to the idea as time went by. Wade decided that we should remain in St. Louis, and that's where Ezra was born."
"Ezra's arrival must have made quite a difference."
Maude shrugged. "For a time. We stayed in St. Louis until Ezra was three. We took him with us when we started traveling again. When times were good, we stayed in the best hotels and ate at the finest restaurants. When our money ran low, we had to sneak out of our hotel rooms without paying the bill, but we would still go to the best restaurants. We would order something for Ezra that was different from what we had. Wade had coached Ezra, and when the meal was over, Ezra would pretend to get sick. There would be a big scene, the restaurant manager would end up apologizing, and we wouldn't have to pay. Even as a child, Ezra was an exceptional con artist."
Josiah didn't hide his disapproval. "What an upbringing, Maude."
"Ezra wasn't unhappy," Maude replied sharply. "Wade and I simply taught him how to survive by his wits."
"You still haven't explained how you came to have so many husbands."
"One of Wade's schemes went awry. He had offended a powerful and influential man, and he was put in jail. I had no idea how long he would be locked up, or how I would take care of my little boy. I arranged for Ezra to stay with my relatives. My family is very stodgy, and I didn't want them to know about Wade being a con man. As a widow I had their sympathy, and they were willing to take in my son. I was determined to take care of myself and not be a poor relation. When some well-to-do gentlemen became enamored with me and wanted to marry me, I accepted their proposals, just as I accepted their generous gifts. These marriages barely lasted beyond the ceremony itself. I've never been a loose woman, Josiah. I much prefer material things to men." Hastily, she added. "You are the exception, of course."
She edged closer to him and squeezed his hand. "You will help me, won't you?"
Despite himself, Josiah couldn't resist Maude's entreaty. "I never refuse a lady in distress."
When Chris, Buck, Vin and Ezra left for Julestown, they rode at a steady, but not punishing pace. Nightfall found them camped out ten miles from the town. After a meal of hardtack biscuits and rabbit, they relaxed over steaming cups of coffee. Vin took out his harmonica and blew some discordant notes. Ezra grimaced. "Please, Vin, spare us another of your musical interludes."
Reluctantly, Vin put the harmonica back in his shirt pocket. "Just tryin' ta pass the time, Ez. It's too early ta turn in."
"That's true. Perhaps Mr. Larabee and Mr. Wilmington could tell us something about these miscreants that we are to escort."
"The Harper brothers worked on a ranch up near Helena with Buck and me about twelve years ago," Chris volunteered.
"That's where I first met Chris," Buck added. "I hired on a week before Chris, and the Harpers hired on the same time as me. The first Saturday night after me and Chris started workin' together, we went into town and got into a fight with the Harpers. Emmett Harper got jealous 'cause one of the girls in the saloon preferred me to him. Naturally, any woman would prefer me." Buck grinned and Vin and Ezra groaned simultaneously. "Both of the brothers jumped me, and Chris waded in to even the odds. There was always bad blood between them and us after that. Later on, a range war broke out, and they wound up on the opposite side from Chris and me."
"Chris," Vin said, "did Ella Gaines live in Helena? You met Buck right after ya broke up with her, didn't ya?"
Chris sipped his coffee and didn't answer right away. "I knew Ella in Tucson."
"You have never told any of us much about her," Ezra commented.
"Not that much to tell."
"It's not like we got anything better to do than listen, Chris," Buck said. "And anything beats havin' Vin set our teeth on edge with that damned harmonica of his."
Vin gave Buck a wounded look, which Buck ignored.
Chris was slow in replying. "The first time I saw Ella, she was at a Fourth of July picnic. She was flirting with every man in sight, including me. Once I met her, I couldn't stay away from her. She had a way of teasing and leading a man on that made him think he was the only man she cared about. She wound up marrying a widower who was more than twice her age. I reckon he could give her everything she wanted." Chris threw the dregs of his coffee into the fire and lit a cheroot. "I left Tucson after that. Heard there was work available in Montana, so I headed up that way. After I joined up with Buck, life got a lot more interesting."
Buck grinned. "I taught Chris everything he knows about women. I turned him into a stud."
Chris laughed. "Bullshit, Buck! I've been fooling around with girls since I was fifteen."
"Fooling around ain't the same as having a smooth, foolproof style. I might even be able to improve Vin's chances, if he'd let me give him some pointers."
"Mr. Tanner seems to attract his share of feminine attention," Ezra observed, "although one has to wonder how he does it."
"Women make me nervous," Vin admitted shyly. "I don't never know what ta say ta 'em. It was easier with the Kiowa women and the Apache women. "About all I had ta do was go huntin' an' bring back some meat. I'd hand it over to 'em an' they's happy. I didn't hafta do much jawin' with 'em, but they still made me kinda nervous the way they'd be whisperin' an' gigglin' when I was around."
"Yep, Vin, you definitely need my help," Buck declared.
"No, I don't. I seen the kinda trouble ya git yerself into, Bucklin. I don't need no jealous husband with fire in his eyes puttin' a load a' buckshot in my tail."
"I was barely grazed," Buck blustered.
Ezra voiced his opinion. "I will have to agree, Mr. Tanner, that you would be wise to stay away from married women. Your previous unfortunate experience with a certain married lady should have taught you that."
"Ezra, I don't wanta talk about Charlotte," Vin warned.
"Perhaps, we had best move on to something else then. Mr. Larabee, I have sometimes heard Mr. Wilmington refer to you as a war dog. How did you earn that sobriquet?"
"Got the name during a range war."
"I started calling him that," Buck said, pouring himself a second cup of coffee. "We got into a range war in Helena that had some real bitter fightin'. When it was over, Chris had himself a reputation with a gun. We left Wyoming when the war ended and got jobs riding shotgun for Wells Fargo. After that, we drifted down into Kansas and Texas and worked as ranch hands and went on trail drives. We never stayed in one place for very long."
Ezra seemed pensive. "I, too, have never remained in one place for any length of time."
"We kept drifting from one town to another," Buck went on. "We got involved in a couple more range wars. Mostly, we just had one hell of a good time."
"You ever run into the Harpers again, Chris?" Vin asked.
"Nope." Chris's face was grim. "I wish now that I'd killed both of 'em when I had the chance. I could've kept 'em from killing so many people." He looked at the other three. "I don't want anybody getting careless with these bastards, or we're likely to end up dead."
The next morning, the four lawmen rode into Julestown and met with the sheriff. The Harper brothers immediately recognized Chris and Buck. "If it ain't Larabee and Wilmington," Emmett Harper said, as he and his brother were led out of their cell. "You two ain't changed much."
"Neither have you sonsabitches," Buck growled.
The Harper brothers bore a strong resemblance. They were in their mid-thirties, auburn haired and blue eyed. Zeke Harper had an air of insolence. "Some folks would say we have changed... for the worse." He gave a cackling laugh.
"Shut up and turn around," Chris ordered. The brothers' hands were tied behind them, and the sheriff brought out the other two prisoners. One man was tall and thin. The other was swarthy and bulky and sported a handlebar mustache. The sheriff nodded towards the heavier man. "This here's Luis Garza. He likes to rape women and then slit their throats. The other one here is Frank Richardson. He favors killin' people slow, so he can watch 'em die. The Harpers kill just for the hell of it."
Once the prisoners were put on their horses, the regulators maintained a brisk pace, wanting to deliver the outlaws as soon as possible. At mid-afternoon, they stopped to water the horses. Ezra filled his canteen and walked over to where Frank Richardson was still mounted. He took hold of the horse's bridle, intending to lead the horse to water. Richardson kicked Ezra in the chest and Ezra stumbled and fell backwards. Richardson then kicked his horse into a gallop and tried to escape. In one fluid motion, Chris drew his colt and shot the outlaw in the back. The man fell from the saddle, his boot catching in the stirrup and causing him to be dragged along the ground.
"I'LL GIT 'IM, CHRIS!" Vin yelled, vaulting into the saddle.
Chris put away his gun and gave Ezra a hand up. "You all right?"
The gambler brushed off his clothes, his expression reflecting his chagrin. "I suppose so... aside from getting knocked on my ass. Apparently, you do make exceptions to your rule against shooting men in the back."
"When I have to. Ezra, you need to pay closer attention to the prisoners." Chris turned away, leaving Ezra feeling like a schoolboy who had been reprimanded.
"You need to pay closer attention," Ezra mimicked under his breath. He picked up his hat, dusted it off and put it back on his head. Vin returned, leading Frank Richardson's horse. The outlaw was face down across the saddle. "Is he dead?" Ezra asked.
"Deader'n a beaver hat," Vin replied.
Chris came over and took a look at the outlaw. "Saved somebody the trouble of hanging him. Ezra, Twin Forks is three miles north of here. They have a sheriff and an undertaker. I want you to drop off Richardson's body there, and tell the sheriff what happened. We'll stay here and rest the horses till you get back."
Ezra touched his hat with exaggerated subservience, secured the dead outlaw to his horse and left with him. As soon as Ezra returned, the group resumed their trip, stopping as dusk closed in. Chris decreed that until they reached El Paso, they would take no time to hunt for game. Instead, they would eat canned food, beef jerky and hardtack biscuits. Buck and Ezra set about building a fire, while Vin and Chris took care of the horses. The outlaws were ordered to sit on the ground.
"I'm hungry," Zeke Harper complained. "When're we gonna eat?"
"None of you have mentioned your deceased compatriot," Ezra commented. "I take it that the period of mourning has already ended."
Zeke Harper shrugged. "We didn't know Frank that long."
"Frank didn't exactly have the kind of personality you could warm up to," Emmett Harper added.
"Unlike yourselves," Ezra retorted.
"Hombre, when are you going to untie us?" Luis Garza demanded in his gutteral voice. He spoke good English with a heavy Spanish accent.
"You'll get untied when it's time for you to eat and not a minute sooner," Buck snapped.
Garza's coal black eyes filled with anger. "Me tirare a tu madre," he snarled.
Buck was on him in an instant, grabbing him by the front of his shirt. "I oughta knock your teeth down your damn throat. You're gonna find out what trouble is if you keep this up." Garza's eyes smoldered, but he said nothing else.
Once cans of beans were opened and heated, Vin went over to untie the outlaws. He untied the Harpers first and then moved on to Garza. "You are muy guapito, chico," Garza leered. "Such eyes! Such a mouth!"
"Shut up!" Vin growled.
"I prefer women, but perhaps your amigos prefer a pretty chico like you with such a sweet ass. I have never seen such a buen tasero." He cupped his hands to emphasize his words. The outlaw stood up, grinned and suggestively grabbed his crotch.
Vin's jaw clenched in anger. "Shut yer filthy mouth! Git over there an' eat." Vin shoved him towards the campfire. "You keep flappin' yer gums like that an' yer gonna be chewin' on a gag instead a' food." The outlaw appeared unmoved by Vin's threat and gave him a mocking leer before moving off towards the fire.
The regulators delayed their meal in favor of guarding the outlaws while they ate. Zeke Harper and Garza gulped their food, but Emmett Harper ate more slowly with his eyes on Buck. "Wilmington, you and Larabee turned us in, didn't ya?"
"Shut up and finish eatin'," Buck responded impatiently.
Emmett Harper chewed his food, but kept on talking. "Up in Montana, it was you and Larabee that got old man Campbell suspicious that it was me and Zeke that was rustlin' his cattle."
"You're damned right we told him about you and your brother."
"It woulda took him longer to catch on that it was us if you and Larabee hadn't told him. You got us fired."
"You're lucky you didn't get caught in the act. You and Zeke could've hung for it. I wish to hell you had."
"We're too smart to hang. We've stole more money than you and Larabee will ever see. You're nothin' but a couple of two bit lawmen, but me and Zeke are successful businessmen, you might say."
"You and your brother are on your way to hang," Chris said. "How successful is that?"
Zeke Harper finished eating and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. "They won't never hang us," he said confidently. "We'll find a way out."
"We got money stashed away," Emmett Harper volunteered, "more money than any of you will ever see playin' do-gooder. We could make it worth your while if you're a mind to look the other way and let us ride outa here."
Chris stole a glance at Ezra and saw that the gambler was stone faced. "You're wasting your time trying to bribe us with blood money you got from killing innocent men."
"You killed your share of men, Larabee, or so I heard."
"Most of 'em needed killin'," Chris said flatly. "A few I regret."
"I don't regret nothin' I did."
"That's the difference between you and me."
That night, Chris took first watch. Emmett Harper had stirred unwelcome memories of some of the men he had killed. Restlessly, he prowled around the campsite. The day had been warm enough, but as night came on, the temperature had dropped sharply. Chris pulled his poncho more closely around him. Walking past Vin, he glanced down. The tracker slept in his buckskin jacket, but the thin blanket covering him was threadbare. Chris removed his poncho and laid it over Vin, taking care not to disturb him. Chris put more wood on the fire, sat down close by and lit a cigar. Across the way, Luis Garza watched him through half-closed eyes. The gunfighter had a weakness for the chico. Such knowledge could be useful. Garza filed the observation away in his head.
The trip to El Paso continued--tense, but otherwise uneventful. The Harper brothers kept up their cocky insistence that they would never hang and amused themselves by taunting their captors. The lawmen ignored the taunts as much as possible until Chris lost patience and had the outlaws gagged. Luis Garza contemptuously smacked his lips at Vin and made sly jibes until Vin put a knife to his throat and produced a trickle of blood.
It was with a sense of relief that the regulators rode into El Paso and turned over their prisoners to the lawmen there. El Paso was a bustling town with a citizenry both Anglo and Mexican. Surrounded by the arid Franklin Mountains, its high desert climate was pleasantly mild, and the lawmen looked forward to their stopover. The dusty, dirty and whiskered men pulled clean clothes from their saddlebags and sought out a bathhouse. As it was close to noon when they arrived, they had the place to themselves. While the bathhouse attendant emptied buckets of water into tubs, the men shaved and then shucked off their dirt encrusted clothes. Ezra shook the dust from his coat. "While we are here in El Paso, I intend to find a tailor and be fitted for some new coats."
"I reckon we could all use some new clothes," Buck remarked.
"Some of us more than others," Ezra added, looking at the heap of Chris's black garments and Vin's buckskin jacket.
Buck glanced over at Vin, who was peeling off his sweat stained longjohns. "Damn, Vin! Buck nekkid, you're even skinnier than Chris. I can count your ribs."
"I'm lean and mean, Buck," Vin responded with a grin.
"Scrawny is more like it," Chris said, stepping into the hot water with a small grunt of pleasure.
Ezra luxuriated in his hot bath. "Gentlemen, are there any suggestions as to where we might obtain a satisfactory meal?"
"Years back, Buck and me passed through here. There used to be a boarding house down the street that served the best fried chicken and apple pie that you could eat."
"What I remember most is the landlady's daughter," Buck said, flashing a grin. "She helped serve the meals, and she took a real shine to me. She kinda wiggled when she walked and ...."
"Spare us the details of another of your conquests," Ezra implored. "How long are we going to be staying here, Chris?"
"We'll be leaving in the morning."
Ezra was crestfallen. "I had anticipated several days in which we could enjoy ourselves."
"You'll have to cram that enjoyment into the rest of today and tonight. No all night poker games, Ezra. You'll have to be ready to leave with the rest of us."
"But an extra day or two could prove to be most profitable."
Chris was firm. "I know you're itchin' to take advantage of the locals, but we don't get paid to take pleasure trips."
After getting cleaned up and devouring a hearty meal, the foursome set out to explore the town. Ezra found a tailor, while his companions continued to look around. Buck paused in front of a shop displaying ladies' hats and gloves. "I could use something like this," he said, thoughtfully stroking his chin.
The corners of Vin's mouth turned up. "You'd look awful silly in a bonnet, Bucklin."
Buck gave him a playful shove. "Son, you can melt a lady's heart with the right kind of present. Now a hat like that one with the posies on it would be hard for any lady to resist. I'm goin' in there. You boys comin'?"
"Nope," said Chris. He and Vin continued their leisurely stroll down the street.
Buck was out of the shop in a short while and caught up with the other two. Buck carried a round hat box tied with lavender ribbon and two small, square boxes. A cowboy walked by and gave Buck a funny look. "What're you starin' at?" Buck demanded. The cowboy snickered in response. "You'd think he'd never seen a man carryin' a lady's hat box before," Buck muttered.
"He probably hasn't," Chris commented.
"Uh, Buck," Vin said, "ya mind keepin' yer distance so folks won't think that me 'n' Chris are with ya."
Buck's mustache twitched, and he glowered at Vin.
"What ya got in them other boxes?"
"One box has a pair of gloves. They're for a proper lady. The other one's got unmentionables in it." He winked at Vin. "They're for a lady who ain't so proper."
"Better not get the boxes mixed up," Chris advised, "or you might get yourself slapped into the next county."
Buck gave a confident grin. "You ever known me to make a misstep when it comes to women?"
"I won't even answer that."
They came to a general store and went in. Just inside the door was a table stacked with mens's shirts and pants.
Vin picked up one of the shirts. "Don't know as this is the right place for ya, cowboy. They got more colors than black."
"Shut up, Vin," Chris said mildly. Nonetheless, Chris showed interest only in the black clothing.
"Reckon I could use a coupla shirts," Vin said.
"You best make sure they look good enough to go with that buckskin jacket," Buck jibed, getting a scowl in return.
By the time that Chris and Vin had made their selections, they were joined by Ezra. "Did the tailor have anything fancy enough for you?" Buck asked the gambler.
"The selection of materials was most satisfactory. I was fitted for three jackets, and they will be shipped to Four Corners when completed."
"Any of 'em pink?" Chris asked.
Ezra refused to take offense. "I hate to disappoint you, Mr. Larabee, but they are in the deepest shades of green, blue and crimson."
"You're still going to look like a peacock," Chris muttered.
Buck spied something that caught his interest. "Boys, I know some ladies who would like like this." He picked up a highly decorated box of chocolates.
"The box would probably get all bent up before we got back home," Chris said.
"And I doubt that a box of chocolates would be safe from Mr. Tanner's sweet tooth," Ezra speculated.
Buck put down the chocolates. "I think you're right, Ezra."
After paying for their purchases, the men wandered back outside and down the street. Chris stopped in front of a bookstore and looked at the books displayed in the window. "Ya wanta go in, Chris?" Vin asked.
They trooped inside and Buck immediately spotted a stack of dime novels. "I think I'll get something for JD," he said, looking through the pile.
Chris concentrated on the shelves stocked with history books and biographies. Vin and Ezra ambled aimlessly about. Vin felt out of his element, unable to read many of the titles containing long, unfamiliar words. He wandered over to Chris, who was thumbing through a volume. "Ya think there's any books in here that Mary or Nettie might like?"
Chris glanced up from the book that he held. "Maybe."
"I'd like ta git Mary somethin' fer helpin' me with my readin', and I want somethin' fer Miz Nettie 'cause.... "
"Because she spoils you," Chris finished.
Vin smiled sheepishly, not bothering to disagree. Helplessly, he looked around at the large number of books. "I don't know what ta choose."
Chris put his book back on the shelf. "I'll help you find something. Maybe a book of poetry for Mary, or.... " His eyes fell on a title that caught his attention. "Here's a book on womens' suffrage." He picked it up and handed it to Vin. "You can get this one for Mary."
Vin was doubtful. "Ya think Mary would want ta read about women sufferin'?"
"Suffrage means the right to vote."
"Nettie might like a cookbook." Chris walked over to another shelf and scanned the titles. He chose one and opened it. "This looks like a good one. It's got all kinds of recipes." He gave it to Vin.
"Reckon I'll git both a' these. Thanks, Chris."
"I'm going to look around some more."
Vin nodded and took the books over to pay for them. Buck was right behind Vin and laid several dime novels on the counter. "The kid ought to enjoy these," he told Vin. Buck put some coins on the counter. "Ma'am," he addressed the store owner, "you got any books with pictures of women?"
The middle aged woman regarded him over the top of her wire-rimmed glasses. "What type of pictures?"
Buck leaned on the counter and gave her an ingratiating smile. "You know... pictures of women wearin' certain kinds of clothes."
The woman saw the beribboned hat box being held by Buck and raised an eyebrow. "A book on ladies' fashions?"
"No, ma'am... not exactly. What I mean to say is books with pictures of women not wearin' many clothes."
"Ma'am, what I'm trying to say is...."
Ezra broke in. "Buck, I think that you have said quite enough. It is time that we take our leave." The store owner hastily wrapped Buck's selections in brown paper and thrust the books at him. Ezra gave Buck a push out the door, followed by Vin. Chris was left inside, still examining the book selection.
"I'd like ta git somethin' fer my pa," Vin said wistfully, "but I ain't got no idea what ta git."
Ezra looked thoughtful. "I have an idea of what might please your father, Vin." Ezra looked at the businesses lining the opposite side of the street and found what he wanted. "Mr. Tanner, Mr. Wilmington, follow me."
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