Dropped and Caught
Warnings: Language, violence
"So..." said J.D. when Ezra and Josiah had recounted the prisoner's confession, "I guess whoever it was that guy works for was looking for someone an' so was Vin - but they got him. An' when whoever it was had knocked Vin out they took my stuff off him 'cos he'd taken it off me. That what you're saying?"
"Seems to be, son, seems to be," said Josiah thoughtfully. "Or maybe..."
"What?" Buck was impatient. "You got another explanation, preacher? You tryin' to defend Vin, still? I tell you, that bastard ain't even worth the effort it takes to think about 'im. If I ever catch up with the son-of-a-bitch, I swear to God he'll wish himself dead, after what he's said an' done. He'd better pray I never see him again." The tall man stormed out of the building, leaving behind him the feeling of unforgiving bitterness. Josiah shook his head.
If Vin had been aware of quite how successful his ploy had been it is unlikely it would have afforded him any satisfaction - not in the state he was in. He was still tied to the pole and blindfolded, and at the moment his back was bared for whatever perverse enjoyment his two tormentors, Adams and Huxtabey, hoped to gain from him now. He had been beaten enough that morning to pass out twice, but each time he had done so he'd been quickly revived by a bucket of cold water thrown over him and some whiskey forced down his throat. He could hear the sound of someone unbuckling a belt and with a dreadful certainty he knew what would follow; it was something he'd endured many times before and had hoped never to have to again.
So far Vin had managed to keep the promise he'd made to himself not to be an easy prisoner. He hadn't given the two men who wouldn't leave him alone the satisfaction of hearing him beg them to stop and neither had he done any more than gasp his pain - but now, as the first lash of the belt came cracking down across his shoulders, he couldn't help but arch his back and let a stifled cry of pain escape through his cracked lips. He heard someone laugh.
"Sounds like a little boy doesn't know how to take his medicine," giggled Huxtabey. "Dear me. We'll have to teach him, Adams."
Adams grunted agreement and the belt came down again. And again. And again.
J.D. was not entirely sure how to react to the fact that one of his heroes and friends had just beaten up two of his other ones. Well, he still didn't know quite how to come to terms with Vin's attack on him. There were only two members of the seven who hadn't suffered from some form of physical assault and, as he watched Nathan and Josiah involved in a heated argument with Ezra Standish, he wondered how long this would last: his heart had almost stopped when he'd rushed into the saloon to see Buck, his best friend and surrogate big brother knocked out by Chris. He could just about understand how the brawl with Ezra had come about - he knew the gambler and the gunslinger didn't always see eye to eye on certain matters. But Buck? From what J.D. had gathered about the two men's past, Buck had always cushioned Chris's temper and he had never worked out quite why.
Buck had to be the most generous, kind-hearted man the young sheriff had ever encountered; sure, he was almost unbearably frustrating at times with his teasing and references to his damned 'animal magnetism', but underneath the façade it was obvious to everyone that Buck Wilmington had a heart the size of Texas. And as for his other assets, well, J.D. wasn't sure there wasn't a lady in Four Corners who wouldn't be able to give a measurement. But his fondness of... 'company' was just another of Buck Wilmington's many attractions. J.D. didn't know how the big man could just rebound from Chris's fist so easily and treat the black-clad man as he always had done when he was taking the news of Vin's betrayal and desertion so badly.
J.D. was so wrapped up in his thoughts that he hadn't noticed Chris was standing behind him morosely. When the dark apparition coughed, J.D. twisted round like a spinning top.
"Chris!" he exclaimed. "I - er... hi."
"J.D." The gunslinger acknowledged him with as few words as usual. In the past, J.D. would have attempted to draw his leader out in a conversation on such a rare occasion of Chris having sought his company rather than the other way round, but today he was not entirely convinced he'd know what to say. To his astonishment, however, it was Chris that broke the uneasy silence.
"J.D., I want to apologise."
This was even more amazing, and J.D. could do nothing but sit in silence on the chair by the jail with his mouth open. As he gradually became aware of his gaping, he clamped it shut again, and looked confused.
"Uh, why?" he asked finally. Chris sighed, and rubbed a tired hand across his eyes.
"Well - for everything. For you having to go through what Vin put you through last night, for the way I've been behaving this morning, for... well, for what I did to Buck; damned fool won't let me apologise to him - says there's nothing to apologise about. So... 'thought you might understand better than him. You tell him I'm sorry when he's ready to listen."
The honour of being classed 'better to understand' than Buck - that would usually have had the young man's chest swelling with pride fit to burst the buttons off his three-piece suit - was tempered with a hankering misgiving about the actions of the man in front of him.
"He didn't deserve it, Chris," he said softly, rather concerned at his own temerity. So this is what happens when a friend beats you up, he thought with interest. Wow. Here I am, telling Chris Larabee - Chris Larabee - that he's done something wrong. For a moment he thought the older man would snap at his words, but instead he shrugged and merely deepened his frown.
"I know, J.D.," he said. "A lot of people get what they don't deserve and a lot of people don't get what they do. That's one of the hardest lessons to learn in life. I'm not giving you advice here," he added, as he thought of the worldly pearls of wisdom Buck and occasionally Josiah insisted on giving the young man. "It's something I haven't even come to terms with myself, yet. My family didn't deserve to die in that fire, you didn't deserve to get hit by Vin yesterday; I doubt Ezra even deserved to get hit by me this morning." He laughed at the shocked expression on J.D.'s face. "Tell anyone that and I'll deny it, though," he cautioned. Then all expression of joviality was wiped from his face. "Vin didn't deserve the trust and friendship we gave him," he continued sadly. "I thought he did. That was my mistake. But you're right; more than anything, Buck didn't deserve that broken nose. He's never deserved what I've done to him, and I don't deserve the way he keeps overlooking how badly I actually treat him."
J.D. had never had a conversation so long and personal with the gunslinger, and it rather took him aback, but he was determined not to let it go at that.
"Why does he, then?" he pursued quietly. "Why does he keep overlooking it?"
For a split second J.D. thought he'd pushed it just a bit too far, but the dark cloud that flitted across Chris's features passed and he paused for a moment in thought before replying. He stooped and picked up a rock from the road, borrowed a child's ball from where it lay discarded on the ground near Vin's wagon and finally took a now-empty whiskey bottle from his pocket. After a small amount of juggling he managed to balance these along his arm, turning to look at his young friend who was now eyeing him nervously and wishing he'd never embarked on this attempt at conversation.
"Chris..." he began, running a hand through his thick, dark hair. The man in black waved dismissively at him.
"You asked me a question, J.D.," he said. "Now let me answer it. Listen, kid. You go through life, and bad things happen to you. Isn't anything anyone can do to avoid it - it's just a fact. Some people, it doesn't happen very often, and some people - like Buck - get more than their fair share. And people react in different ways. Now take me - " He adjusted the three items lining his left arm and cradled the other one round them so they wouldn't fall, " - take me as... ah hell, take me as the bad element. I'm going to make something bad happen to these things here," he gestured to at the rock, ball and bottle, "and you see that wall over there, Potter's Stores? Well that's gonna be the something bad that happens to them."
"Chris, are you still drunk?" J.D. could envisage an extremely pissed Larabee hurling random objects at a wall and he, as sheriff, being forced to take action and arrest him... it just didn't bear thinking about. J.D. shuddered and Chris shook his head impatiently.
"No," he snapped. "Will you listen. Remember, I'm doing a bad thing to this rock here - " He swung the rock up into the air and caught it, " - I'm going to throw it at the wall."
"Oh, dear," murmured J.D., as he witnessed the stone crash into the white painted side of the shop and fall with a dull thud into the ground below.
"See what that did? It just... well, it didn't really do anything," said Chris. "Something bad happened to it, and it just let it be. Isn't actually broken as such, just maybe dented some. Now this bottle," he continued, weighing the glass vessel in his hand - much to the dismay of both J.D. and the rapidly-growing crowd they seemed to have attracted, "This bottle will be destroyed by that bad thing, that wall." To emphasise his point he hurled the missile and everyone except him winced as it splintered into thousands of glittering fragments. J.D. held his breath and prayed Buck would soon re-emerge from where he had seen him enter the saloon.
"But this ball," said Chris, holding it in his hands and gazing at it almost reverentially, "I could throw it at the wall and what'll happen?" He tossed it onto the hard surface and it sprung back to land neatly in his waiting hands. "It bounces back. See, J.D., that ball's like Buck Wilmington; no matter what happens, he'll always come back for more. He won't let it ruin him. Now me, when my wife an' kid died, I so nearly let it shatter me like that whiskey bottle. I didn't, though; he wouldn't let me, Buck wouldn't let me. You can't let a situation get to you like that, son. The only way to cope with something bad is to recover from it, if you can, then face up to your trouble - like that ball returned to me after I threw it at the wall. Face up to the bad element." And he strode off to reacquaint himself with the interior of the saloon, the crowd of muttering townsfolk quickly falling silent and parting for him a path to his destination before reluctantly dispersing back to whatever they'd been doing. No one wanted to have words with Chris Larabee.
But J.D. Dunne stood staring after the swirling black duster, a thoughtful frown tugging at his brow. Face up to the bad element... He smiled slowly to himself, and nodded once. I understand, he thought, with something approaching exultance. Not 's complicated as everyone seems to make out after all.
Then, still smiling inwardly, he went to see if he couldn't borrow a dustpan and brush from Mrs Potter.
It was three o'clock and Vin Tanner was not happy. Truth be told, he was decidedly unhappy - and he had good reason to be. He was tired, he was hungry, thirsty, he ached in every part of his body he could put a name to and very possibly all the other parts he couldn't, and he couldn't wipe from his mind the thought of his friends. What would they think of each other? What would his words do to them - do to Chris, especially. If he'd been in any position to do so Vin would have kicked himself; saying those things about Sarah and Adam had seemed like such a good idea at the time - he'd been desperate to get J.D. away from him. And desperate to make sure no one came looking for him so they wouldn't have to suffer the indignities that had been piled on him, so they wouldn't be... well, Vin still wasn't entirely sure what Gill and his friends intended to do to him. All he had been sure of last night was that he didn't want the only friends he had to get themselves killed coming to rescue him. But right now, the tracker thought sadly as he twisted into only a slightly more comfortable position, rescue was seeming one hell of an appealing notion.
"Chris, can I have a word a moment please?" Josiah was hovering outside Chris's hotel room and expected the answer he received. He and Nathan had confiscated all alcohol and firearms from the freshly intoxicated gunslinger some hours earlier and had locked Larabee in there to recover where he couldn't do any damage to anyone else in the process.
"No," the man in black told him savagely, "You can get the fuck out of here or you can let me get the fuck out of here - I don't mind which. Just so long as either way you leave me alone."
"It's about J.D. and Vin," continued Josiah, pretending he hadn't heard.
"They can fuck off as well."
"Ezra found J.D.'s watch."
"We think the men who had it may have taken it from Vin. They also had J.D.'s telescope."
"I don't give a flying fuck. Go to hell, Josiah."
"Well just wait 'til I've finished talking to you first, okay? Then I'll happily escort you there because, quite frankly Chris, I think it's either time you sobered up a bit or did just that. Do you hear me?"
"Fine, I'll come back later."
Angry, Josiah stalked away to seek his own solace in the saloon but was arrested by a furious pounding on the door.
"Sanchez!" shouted Larabee. Josiah swiveled and turned back.
"Will ya let me outta here?"
"Are you sober?"
"Pretty much. Enough. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to sound so goddamn ornery. Will you unlock my door?"
Josiah considered. Was it safe? He hummed tunelessly to himself while he thought about the possible consequences of loosing Larabee on the town.
Chris could hear his friend's humming and hawing and it reminded him unpleasantly of a wasp. Chris had never liked being stung by wasps and he decided that if he were to ever gain his freedom maybe he should get on the right side of this one.
"Please?" he added humbly. Josiah sighed; God forgive me if he goes and kills someone, he thought as he unlocked the door and let a sorry-looking gunfighter out.
"Thank you," said Chris. Josiah peered at him intently. He knew how badly J.D.'s news had affected him, and he had no wish to reawaken the demon that had been let loose in the saloon that morning by stirring up any more feeling, but he felt it his duty to tell his leader about the incident in the jailhouse. To his surprise, Chris was unusually receptive and listened to every word he had to say, including J.D.'s theory.
Chris let the words sink into his brain then slowly forced it to work. "Maybe," he offered hesitantly, "Maybe Vin wasn't the bounty hunter. Maybe Vin was the one they were after and they mistook J.D. for the bounty hunter when they saw Vin knock him out. Maybe that's how they came by the watch and telescope."
Josiah stroked his chin, deep in thought. "Sounds more plausible," he allowed. "I suppose the three men in jail would know where Vin was being kept, in that case."
There was an awkward silence as both men realised the full implications of what Josiah had just said. He had, in effect, just asked Chris if he wanted to find out where Vin Tanner was being kept so they could, in Ezra's own fanciful language, 'affect his emancipation'. Chris shook his head painfully.
"I don't know, Josiah," he whispered thickly. "I don't know. How can I help him when he's done what he's done? It's better I just leave him alone, just forget about him and let him live his own life - which is obviously what he wanted. Why else would he have done what he did?"
Josiah cast a quick prayer heavenwards for his own safety and that of Chris's if he was forced to knock him out, and ushered a slightly confused Larabee back into his room.
"Listen, brother," he said gently, easing himself down onto the bed, "I heard what you said to J.D. this morning about Buck - about how you have to face up to the bad element. I think we can safely say that, in this case, Vin is your bad element. No," he held up a hand to forestall the interruption Chris seemed intent on providing him with, "Just hear me out on this one. Please."
Chris nodded, and Josiah continued. "I understand how you feel - and felt - about Vin. I saw how close you were and I do, believe me, know how you must be hurting at the moment. He was my friend too, Chris. This is reminding you of the fire that killed Sarah and Adam - " Josiah could see that, despite his promise, Chris was about to say something. "Shut up," he said abruptly, startling the gunslinger back into silence. "I know I didn't know them, Chris, but I'm afraid you're going to have to start facing up to your fears. One thing I've learnt in my profession is to practice what you preach, and you'd do well if you took your own advice. Now, seems to me that if you did just leave Vin alone then you'd be doing what he wanted. You can't let this tragedy override your life like you did the fire, Chris. Face up to your bad element; face up to Vin. Find out where he is, at least, then let him live his own life. You'll feel a better man for it, I swear."
"How the hell would you know how I feel, preacher?" shouted Chris suddenly, taking them both aback. "How would you know if I'd feel better? How do you even know I want to feel better? I don't deserve 'better' so why the hell should I go looking for it? And I don't have any obligations to him. Why should I go and drag his scrawny bloody ass out of whatever shit himself he's got himself into now? I've done it enough."
"And he's dragged yours out a few times too, Chris," reminded Josiah coldly. "I've run out of fingers to count the number of times he's saved your life - all our lives. I think you owe it to him to at least make sure he isn't lying somewhere dying."
"I don't give a fuck what he's doing," said Chris fiercely, then burrowed his head into his hands and groaned. "And I don't owe him anything. I'm not the forgiving man you are, Josiah. I'm a bitter bastard who holds grudges and doesn't forget people who've done wrong by me. Remember, I walked out on my own wife and kid to let them burn. Vin was right, damn him - what kind of man does that? Jesus, I can't even forgive Buck and he didn't do anything wrong! How can you expect me to just let it all go like that? I can't do it. Like I said; I'm a bastard. Everyone else sees me for what I am - why the hell won't you?"
Josiah rose stiffly to his feet once more. "I do, now," he said softly. "You are, aren't you? Just like Vin." He went quietly from the room and locked it once more behind him, to the sound of Chris Larabee yelling at him.
"I'm nothing like that goddamn, sorry Texan bastard!" he heard - but the voice lacked conviction. Josiah smiled.
The goddamn, sorry Texan bastard in question was at that moment in an extremely sorry state. Why the hell couldn't they just let him pass out? Unconsciousness was tugging at him with appealing fingers but Adams and Huxtabey kept cutting them away as they poured yet more liquor into his mouth and threw another bucket of freezing cold water over him, diluting the blood that now ran freely down his torn back. They threw some of the whiskey at him too, for good measure, and Vin was too spent to scream the pain he felt. But Gill had come to visit him and he was damned if he was going to let him see it.
"I trust you're enjoying your stay, Mr Tanner?" Gill was as unfailingly polite as Ezra always was and it grated on Vin's frayed nerves.
"Wonderful," growled the tracker, then, remembering a Standish-like phrase and hoping it would be in context, "Though I ain't too impressed with the accommodation." Huxtabey snickered, and Vin could almost feel Gill's predatory grin radiate through the bandanna wrapped round his head.
"Well now, I really am sorry to hear that," replied his host with a mocking remorse. "I shall have to alter it to fit your demanding standards. I must admit I thought we were being rather sloppy in neglecting you. What would you like? A shave? A... a haircut?"
Vin said nothing as he listened to the snorts of laughter. He had a bad feeling about this... he almost laughed at that thought. Hell, he'd had a bad feeling - no, make that several bad feelings - all day, not least the one in his back.
"Oh," said Huxtabey, "But then he'd lose that beautiful femininity of his."
"If you want femininity, just get a girl," offered Adams wryly.
"You miss my point."
Gill interrupted the banter. "I believe a trip to the barber is in order," he declared. "Adams, see if there is a pair of shears in the stables... Huxtabey, I know how attached you are to Mr Tanner's curly locks... would you do the honors?"
"Certainly, Mr Gill." Huxtabey's voice was horribly gleeful at the prospect. "Would that just be the head, or...?"
Vin's heart rose several inches into his throat. He was under no illusions as to what Huxtabey was referring to, and the relief he felt when he heard Gill's negative reply was immense.
"No," he said. "At least, not I think yet. There'll be plenty of time for that later - we wouldn't want Mr Tanner to have all the fun at once. We must prolong his pleasure... ah, Adams - well done. Bernard: the shears."
Vin's hair was pulled backwards so hard he suspected the scissors wouldn't be necessary. Wish people'd stop fucking doin' that, he thought wearily. He'd almost be grateful to get rid of the damn stuff if it'd stop it getting' yanked and pulled and torn like that.
"Careful there, Bernard," cautioned Gill as the points of the blades dug into the tracker's scalp, making him shy away from his undeniably amateur hairdresser. "Can't have you inflicting damage on your clients like that. My word, doesn't he look different? Quite an improvement, I must say, Mr Tanner. You look quite handsome."
"Mmm," sighed Huxtabey dreamily.
"It's just a pity," continued Gill pleasantly, "That you'll never get the chance to use your good looks to your advantage."
By dusk, Josiah had not only found out - with Ezra's help - from the prisoners where the man who may or may not be Vin was being kept, but had also persuaded everyone but Buck and Chris to come with him to see whether it was indeed him or someone else. Buck wouldn't listen to a word that had anything to do with the quiet tracker he had thought to be his friend, and Josiah suspected it was because he had heard in his message the words that had haunted him since the fire - that he had been responsible for the deaths of Chris Larabee's family. Though his from his easy-going manner one would not have thought it, Josiah had often sensed that not only had Chris blamed Buck for the event but so had the tall ladies man himself. This sudden, unlooked-for betrayal by Vin was an unforgivable crime in Buck's eyes, as was the treatment of J.D., a kid that Buck would die for and nearly had done on many an occasion. The preacher had informed Buck of Vin's possible whereabouts and his intention to ascertain his identity, but the tall man had merely shrugged and said it had nothing to do with him; nothing any of the others could do would convince him otherwise.
Which left Chris. Nathan had knocked on his locked door with some food at about five o'clock but had been met with a silence, he hoped of sleep. Now, the preacher decided he would try his luck again, and hammered hard on the wooden doorframe with a single meaty fist.
"Who?" came Chris's abrupt question. If it was Mary Travis, woman or no, he would tell her to fuck off. Do-gooder had already crept round and asked him questions at least half a dozen times that day, thought Larabee darkly, and if it was her again then so help him God he would...
"Do you want to come out now?"
"Will you talk with me?"
"Yes; yes, I will. Josiah, I'm sorry about earlier - I was angry. Hell, I still am, but... can we talk about it over some food or something?"
Josiah fumbled with the lock and almost dropped the key in shock at hearing Chris's change in disposition towards him. "Of course," he replied as he finally succeeded in forcing the door open, and burst it open to behold a black-shirted, surprisingly sober and vaguely sheepish looking gunslinger sat on the bed looking at him.
Ten minutes later they were sat inside the saloon with two plates of steaming hot meat and gravy Inez had placed in front of them wordlessly as soon as they'd entered. Chris attacked his meal ravenously, stabbing at the meat as though he wished it was Vin Tanner.
"I thought he was like a brother to me," he confided suddenly, letting his knife and fork drop with a clatter and a single tear threatening to appear in the corner of his eye. "I really thought that."
Josiah looked at the man before him gravely, and said nothing.
"I thought about what you said, earlier," Chris went on, retaking his discarded utensils, "And I think just for once I will take advice. Yours, and mine. We'll ride tomorrow to - well, where is he being kept?"
"Ranch a couple of miles east of Eagle's Bend. Man called Simon Gill. You ever met him?"
Chris shook his head. "Nope. Have a feeling I soon will, though... Thanks, Josiah." He wafted a meager ghost of a smile upward to the larger man. "What you said earlier, it helped."
Josiah got the feeling that professions of gratitude and apology came hard to the embittered man in front of him. He sighed, and offered a smile of his own. "'S okay, Chris," he said. "Any time." Again, Chris flashed him a terse grimace that didn't reach his eyes.
"After tomorrow," he replied grimly, "I'm not entirely sure there'll be another time."
Vin felt strangely light-headed. This was probably, he decided as night settled and he gained the few minutes of peace he'd had all day while his captors went to eat dinner, the result of being beaten, drinking all that whiskey and having his hair cut; he had been let down from the pole now, and squirmed in the dust as he attempted to find himself a comfortable position. He knew he would not be able to take much more of this. His hands were still bound, as were his eyes, and his thoughts drifted back to Four Corners. Wonder how J.D. is, he thought, an' Bucklin, an' the others, an'... an' Chris. At that thought his throat seemed to tighten, and the battered Texan was suddenly overwhelmed by loneliness. He counted his six friends as the only people he'd really been able to call family since his mother had died all those years ago when he was five, and now he didn't even have those. He was alone again.
Why did it feel so different, then? Jesus, he'd spent all but six or seven years of his life being alone - why the hell did a handful of sorry cowboys make a jot of difference? Vin shook his head, then regretted it as it sent sharp jabs of pain coursing down his body. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn't pretend he didn't care for his fellow peace-keepers, and their loss hurt him more than anything Huxtabey or Adams had done to him. Unnoticed by the tracker, a solitary tear identical to that Chris had unknowingly shed stole down his cheek to drop onto his hand. Sorry, Cowboy, he said silently. Fuck, Chris - I'm sorry.
The next morning saw not five of the peacekeepers from Four Corners travelling to Eagle's Bend but, much to everyone's surprise, six. Buck Wilmington had condescended to travel with them because Buck Wilmington wanted to see to it that they didn't get into any more trouble than they were already in and that Chris wasn't reduced to homicide whilst in the company of Ezra Standish.
This at least is what Buck told his friends. A plan had formed hesitantly in his mind to see for himself where Vin was being kept and - just for old times' sake, he told himself - perhaps drag him out before Chris or one of the others did something stupid like put a bullet in his goddamn buffalo-covered hide. He didn't want to give him the opportunity to worm his way back into everyone's affections, to apologise and get given another chance to cause anyone more pain than they'd all already endured - J.D., for example; he didn't want the kid to have to come face to face with the man he'd thought to be his friend and who had rewarded such affection with two punches and the wrong side of his gun. So. He'd take them to the saloon, leave them there, go get Vin out of the ranch Josiah said he was in and then make sure the sorry bastard never came near them again. Yes.
His mind having been made up, Buck gave the nearest he'd come to a genuine smile in the last two days. It might take a while getting used to, but life would soon return to normal without Vin - they were obviously better off without him anyway. They'd go back to Four Corners and carry on as they had done for the previous six months, in the relative peace and well of pretty females that the town provided them with and slowly, slowly the memories of Vin Tanner would fade until everyone forgot about him totally - even Chris.
But even as pictured this optimistic situation, he knew it was an impossibility. How could they forget about the quiet young man who'd seemed so old and who had made such a significant difference to their lives? Who'd saved Nathan's - hell, he'd saved everyone's with that bloody shooting of his - who'd been so patient with J.D. at times when everyone else would have been tempted to commit murder, who'd dived into the murky pool of Chris's past and resurfaced dragging a much happier Cowboy with him, and who'd quietly and unobtrusively taken a hold of everyone's hearts? Buck knew with a sad certainty that it would never come to be. Chris, definitely, wouldn't be able to let go of his memories at the click of Fate's finger and they would, in all probability, overwhelm him as the burning of his home had done. It would probably kill him. Chris Larabee had been given a second chance in Vin, and it all but broke Buck's heart to see such an opportunity go to waste like this - and served to fuel his anger at just what exactly Vin Tanner had done to the group of friends who had come to mean so much over the last half-year. Bastard.
Behind Buck, Josiah and Nathan were also debating how best they could get Vin out. It was all very well that they'd succeeded in getting Chris and Buck to accompany them, but now? They didn't even have a plan to reach Gill's ranch, still less to bust Vin out of it. So when they reached Eagle's Bend and, predictably, the saloon there, Josiah was at a loss for words. Sitting down with the others at a table, he looked to Nathan for help that the healer could not provide him with, and instead Josiah found himself staring uncertainly into the face of a pissed off and yet again drunk Chris Larabee.
"And what," enquired Chris, toying idly with the whiskey glass in front of him, "do you propose we do now?"
He was looking uncomfortably like a hungry dog and Josiah just prayed it wasn't his neck he intended to go for when he jumped. "I don't know," he admitted bluntly.
"You don't know."
"Well, that's really very helpful."
Ezra saw the tensions rising, and decided that at this point it was time to intercept. "If I might make a suggestion..." he started.
"No, you might not," snarled Larabee without looking at him. Ezra sighed and produced his hip flask from a pocket, taking a long swig of his specially imported highland whiskey. God knew he was going to need before this day was through.
Josiah glanced at Buck for help, but the tall man merely glowered back. Best for now that he kept up the pretence of disinterest in Vin's release.
"You dragged me all the way out here for fucking nothing," continued Chris levelly.
"Well yes - "
"Well then you can fucking well think of something now," he suddenly yelled, "And while you're at it you can come up with an excuse for me not to ride the hell out and not come back. If you're so damn set on us sticking together then you're goin' the wrong way about showing it, Preacher. I'll tell you now - this is the last thing we're gonna do. I'll get Tanner out if that's what you want an' then I'm going. An' I mean it."
"You'd best think of somethin' soon, J'siah," agreed Buck. "He ain't exaggerating."
They stormed off leaving a wake of anger and shaking heads and J.D. trotting along behind to keep up with his somewhat taller friends. Josiah sank dejectedly back down into his chair.
"I guess that's that, then," he announced. Ezra and Nathan remained silent. "If Chris is gonna be like that, I don't see what we can do."
Ezra looked at him speculatively. "Don't be so defeatist, Mr Sanchez. All is not yet lost merely because our esteemed Mr Larabee will not agree to your idea. I am confident that, with a little persuasion, he will come round to your way of thinking."
"Oh, yeah? And just who's going to persuade him? He's not even talking to you."
Ezra chewed over this reflectively. "There is that," he admitted. "Still; maybe we can endeavor to affect Mr Tanner's emancipation without him."
"And Buck," pointed out Nathan.
"And J.D." Josiah poured himself an excessively large whiskey from Ezra's hip flask, making the gambler wince.
"Yes, well," he replied, removing his prized possession from the older man's grasp before his supply of spirits was irretrievably diminished, "I cannot help but feel that you're both being unnecessarily pessimistic."
"No one can win with a losing hand, Ezra. Not even you."
The conman grinned wolfishly. "My friend," he answered, reaching out and plucking the Ace of Spades from behind the preacher's ear, "Believe me. There is no such thing as a losing hand. Unless of course you happen to have Vin Tanner looking over your shoulder."
Chris went to his hotel room and refused to come back out of it. J.D. wasn't sure whether he should try and console the gunslinger or accompany Buck, who had unexpectedly veered off left towards the stables. The young sheriff had expected Wilmington to attempt to comfort Chris, and came to the eventual conclusion that the tall man had, finally, decided to allow Chris to wallow in a permanent self-pity: considering his options, J.D. told himself that if Buck thought that, then Larabee was by far and away better off without him, and, his decision made, he went to look at the horses with Buck.
He found him saddling up his big grey.
"Where you goin', Buck?" he asked.
"Out," was the short reply.
"Out out." Buck softened slightly at the wounded expression on his companion's face. "But you can tell me about Casey and the donkey first, if you like," he amended, knowing that J.D. would be left alone after he'd gone and remembering they'd never actually got round to hearing the long-anticipated tale. J.D. jumped at the welcome distraction on offer and flashed Buck a grateful smile.
"Well," he started, "it was like this."
Nathan and Josiah looked at Ezra sceptically.
"An' I suppose you've got a plan, have you?" enquired Nathan, raising a cynical eyebrow.
"As a matter of fact, I have," replied the conman calmly. "It would involve someone entering Mr Gill's premises to ascertain where exactly the unfortunate Mr Tanner is to be found, then ... "
"You volunteering? Hey, we could dress you up in a skirt 'n wig an' you could seduce Vin outta there."
"No, thank you." Ezra cast the laughing healer a peevish glare. "I did in fact have in mind a man of the cloth, a travelling preacher, a ... " Ezra jumped violently as Josiah slammed his open hands down on the table and knocked his glass over. "W-what?" he asked, startled.
"I beg your pardon?"
"I said, enough. Enough of your damn fool notions. You think they'll just let me walk in there, collect Vin and walk out again because I'm a preacher? I prefer Nathan's idea."
Ezra looked mortally wounded. "If you could have had the patience to allow me to continue," he said, "I would have gone on to suggest that once you had established Mr Tanner's whereabouts you returned to the... fold."
"And then what?"
Ezra's hurt expression vanished. "I have no idea," he confessed. "But you'll admit it was a promising start."
"It's better than anything either of you two gentleman have managed to come up with," defended Ezra, sensing that his companions remained completely unmoved by the scheme.
"True," admitted Nathan grudgingly. "But then that's only because we haven't tried yet."
"Well, if you succeed in finding an alternative solution, do let me know," snapped Ezra and lapsed into a sulky silence. One that was not broken.
Not, that is, until Josiah finally grunted and turned to study the Southerner.
"Why me?" he asked. "Why not you?"
"My friend, if I thought for one moment that I could pull the con off, I would not hesitate. But I fear I make an unsuitable preacher, and would therefore no doubt be deemed somewhat unrealistic by Mr Gill. I am sorry to say that religion is the one area in which I could not distinguish my... er, posterior from my elbow."
"Well, why a preacher, then?"
"A fanatical preacher. One bent on converting. One especially keen, may I suggest," winked Ezra, "on introducing the many merits of Christianity to Indians? Or, more specifically, those uneducated white individuals who have misguidedly approached the Indian culture..."
Josiah blinked. "Sly," he said.
"You. You're sly."
"Why, thank you."
Nathan shook his head. "Only you could take that as a compliment," he said in disbelief. Ezra inclined his head gracefully.
"I am forever indebted to you for this observation, Mr Jackson," he replied, "Another statement which I believe I will regard favourably. I would hate to think of my two acquai ... friends casting me in a bad light."
"Not at all, Ez, not at all." Nathan winked at Josiah over the change in Ezra's description of them. "Boy's learning," he added with a grin.
Meanwhile, Vin was eating. Or rather being fed. Bernard Huxtabey was spooning him some form of broth whilst Joseph Adams was cramming dry bread down his throat and the tracker, hungry as he was, wished they would desist. As he choked on a lump of the stale crust, Huxtabey thoughtfully thumped his back for him.
"There, there," he soothed. "Joseph, I think he's got a bit of a cough coming on. Do we have any medicine?"
Adams produced a bottle of whiskey and poured some liberally down Vin's throat.
"Yup," he said, "That should do it."
"Seems to have done the trick," agreed his friend. "So, Tanner... how's your back feeling?"
"Just fine," replied Vin, spitting the liquid out at the voice and still coughing slightly.
"That's mighty good to hear. Looks like you're catching the sun being out here though... What would you say to a little massage? Just a nice rub-down..."
"I'd say you can fuck off, but then that wouldn't stop you so I don't think I'll bother."
"Good boy. Joseph, could you...?"
Adams hauled Vin upright and propped him up against the side of a wagon. Vin could see the bright sunlight through his blindfold, and feel the searing heat bouncing off his skin. That was nothing, however, compared to the pain he felt as the little man rolled up his sleeves and applied almost unbearable pressure to the tracker's lacerated back. Vin gritted his teeth so hard he could feel them grind. He'd be damned if he'd let the little red-haired weasel have the satisfaction of knowing just how much he was hurting him. Watch your back, watch your back... Christ, people were always sayin' that to him. Now why the hell didn't he take their advice?
When Josiah set out for Gill's ranch, Chris, Buck and J.D. were nowhere in sight. This didn't bother the preacher ... Ezra was probably right; this was one rescue they were better off attempting without the full compliment of lawmen. There was no telling what Chris or Buck may do when they saw Vin.
"I'll meet you back in the saloon in three hours," he told Nathan as he swung up onto his horse. The dark man nodded briefly.
"Good luck," he said quietly. "An' watch your back, J'siah. Be careful out there."
Josiah gave him a nod and took the East road out of Eagle's Bend, leaving Nathan standing with his arms folded and a frown on his face. He still wasn't sure how he and Josiah had been talked into the ploy by Ezra, but he had to hand it to the Southerner ... the man sure could pull off a con when he had it in mind. Not to mention his ability to talk the hind leg off a donkey... Which reminded him. Hadn't J.D. been wanting to tell that story of his about his girl and Nettie's mule? Poor kid must be feeling lonely by now, what with Chris hiding in his bedroom with a bottle of whiskey and Buck no doubt seeking solace in the local brothel... Nathan didn't think he'd be able to cope with Ezra and the gullible citizens of Eagle's Bend he'd attracted to his poker table right now so he decided instead to seek out J.D. and cheer him up by listening to his tale. Lord, he could do with a bit of cheering up himself.