The cabin was dark and musty, but had obviously been used by the gang recently. The place didnt look lived in; there were more subtle signs of habitation that Vins trained eyes spotted easily.
Those eyes scanned the room as he was dragged through it; but not to much advantage. The blows to his head were winning and he could feel the fever hed been fighting was beginning to win too. Joe dragged him roughly through the room, and his injured leg connected with the corner of a chair, sending a pain through his thigh so intense that he saw white stars before his eyes. It was the clearest thing hed seen for a while.
They went through a door at the other end of the cabin and Vin decided hed really had enough when he was thrown hard to the wooden floor by the bed. His hands were grabbed roughly behind his back and bound tightly with rope, and he felt the rope being tied to one leg of the heavy bed. His eyes shot daggers at Joe as the outlaw tied his legs firmly together at the ankles.
"That should hold em til the boss decides what were doin," Joe said to Cleet as he straightened up and looked at his fellow outlaw.
"Reckon Jakes gone plum crazy mself. What the hell we draggin these along for. I dont like the feel o this, Joe."
The two men headed towards the door. "Well, guess Jakes got a plan, he always does," Cleet replied, before the door was closed and bolted behind them.
Vin looked around the dark room. He narrowed his eyes, trying to locate Ezra and Somers in the small bedroom. He spotted Ezra first, tied the same way he was to one of the legs at the head of the bed. There was no way in hell he could see how badly Ezra was hurt, but it worried him that the gambler had been so quiet. Hed been unconscious for a long time. The only reason he was sure that Ezra was still alive was the fact that hed heard small moans coming from the con man as they rode along. He recalled how quiet the four outlaws had been; the tension in the air could have been cut with a knife. It made him feel a little smug that theyd foiled the gangs plan.
He mentally shook himself. He had to stay focused. How many times had he told himself that today? He shivered, he was soaked through to the skin, and the buckskin he was wearing was not going to dry quickly. His head was pounding and he took a deep breath, knowing he had to keep alert, this was no time to give in to his bodys protestations, his healing would have to wait.
"Ez?" he whispered, noting how dry his throat was.
There was no reply.
"Ez? Can ya hear me pard?" Vin tried again.
"I can, if its any consolation," John Somers' voice came from behind the sharpshooter, and Vin surmised that he was tied to the opposite side of the bed to he and Ezra.
"Good t know I got conscious company," Vin replied.
"Mr Tanner, I feel exactly the same way, what do you think they will do?" Somers responded.
Vin didnt answer immediately. The moment Somers began talking. Vins heart leap frogged. Did he hear right? Or was he mistaken? He knew he had a little fever, but he was sure he was still sharp enough not to get that confused.
"Ya know m name. How?" he finally managed to ask.
Somers mentally kicked himself. Damn it! Tanner didnt miss a thing. "I overheard one of those men in the saloon."
Tanner thought it over. No, that wasnt it. Even if he had overheard in the saloon, his instincts were alerting him to danger. He summoned his strength and took a wild guess, feeling an irony rising in him.
"Yer a bounty hunter " Well hed said it, if he wasnt he would want to know why Vin would come to that conclusion, and if he was well if he was, then he was right.
Somers shook his head in defeat. What did it matter. Hell, he didnt know what was going to happen now, everything was spiralling out of control, and for the first time in his life he felt helpless.
"Yes Mr Tanner, I am. Ive heard about the way you can sum people up quickly, but I really believed Id beaten you."
Vin smiled his crooked smile, despite his predicament, which had suddenly taken a new twist. "Reckon ya wouldve too. If thingsd gone different," he heard Somers chuckle, and Vins smile stayed in place as he leant his weary head back against the bed.
"So, what was yer plan?"
The bounty hunter thought for a moment. Should he be speaking so freely with his prey? He still saw the five hundred dollar reward in his minds eye, although it was getting a little faded. Ah, what the hell, they were probably going to be dead soon anyway.
"I was watching you in town. Waiting for a time when your friends were safely out of the way. I soon figured out it wasnt going to be as easy as I thought. So when I saw you all going to the Grain Exchange I decided to listen in the best I could, and try to adapt my plan."
"So ya overheard us talkin bout the stagecoach?"
"Yes. When I heard you were riding shotgun I couldnt believe my good fortune. I didnt hear the reason for you being on the stage, I just figured you were filling in. So I decided to be on the stage and take you at my first opportunity. I was also glad to see you were not quite yourself, I knew it was an added advantage."
"So, whyd ya act so darn annoyin?" Vin asked, closing his eyes.
"So you would dismiss me as of no consequence a fool. I wanted you all to believe I was just a city man who was stopping by."
Vin smiled tiredly. "Ya sure sound like Ez with them five dollar words yer usin. Were ya raised by wolves too?"
Somers laughed again. "Ez? The gambler right? The injured man?"
"Yeah," answered Vin quietly. He thought of another question. "Ya drew attention to yerself durin the hold up. Why?"
"I acted without thinking. I knew everything was going to hell, and acted on the spur of the moment," Somers replied, still amazed he was having this conversation with the man he was going to drag back to Tascosa to face a noose.
"I know a man whod have a few words t say bout actin without thinkin," Vin said, partly to himself. His heart sank as he thought of Chris. Was he alive? He was brought out of his wandering thoughts by another voice.
"I knew you were a despicable low life excuse for a human being."
Ezra had been awake for a while. Hed listened to the voices that came out of the darkness, but was in too much pain and felt too weak to say anything until that moment. But it hadnt stopped him thinking.
Why was Vin talking so freely with this man? They were holding a conversation almost like they were old friends. It was amazing what a dire situation caused people to do. When the reality sunk in that Somers was a bounty hunter, out to capture Vin, Ezra had suddenly found his voice.
"You okay Ez?"
Ezra wasnt sure how to answer that question. He felt terrible, but he didnt want to tell Vin that. He surmised that Vin had enough to worry about. The gambler frowned. What made him think Vin would worry about him? Well, he had been worried about Vin, so maybe, just maybe.
"I believe I have been shot, Mr Tanner," he replied weakly.
A glint came into Vins eyes. "Ya come to rescue me Ezra?"
"Yes, Mr Tanner." Was the wry response.
"Thanks Ez, preciate it pard."
"You are most welcome, Vin."
Vin chuckled again. He felt drunk. Oh boy, was he ever in need of some of Nathans horse piss. But first they had to escape But how?
"Dya reckon you two could mebbe help me t lift the bed? If we put our weight against it and try t stand up."
The other two men sighed heavily. Hell, was he ever clutching at straws.
* * * * * * *
In the main part of the cabin, candles had been lit, and two of the gang members were having a heated discussion.
"Cmon Jake. The hostage thing aint us. We steal and rob and kill when we have to, we dont hold prisoners." Seth took another sip of his coffee. He was getting angrier by the second; Jake just would not listen to reason.
"That long haired one in there probably saved our hides."
"Saved us? Half of us are dead," Seth answered irritably.
"Yeah, but their friends " Jake nodded towards the closed door to the room housing their hostages. " are likely to be more careful now."
"If they werent here. Its likely they wouldnt be on our tail like you seem to think they are."
Jake stood up quickly and walked to the window, running his fingers through his hair. "They would have followed us anyway. Think about it, Seth. Why were they there? To stop us, right?" he waited for Seth to nod, he didnt but Cleet and Joe, who were sitting quietly, listening to the argument, did.
Jake sighed tiredly. "Look. We can take em as far as the border, and leave em there."
"Jake, yer blowin hot and cold. First ya wanna shoot em, now ya wanna keep em alive." Seth received no response, so he continued. "We should kill em now." The older man leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms.
Jake resigned himself to the fact that Seth would never change his mind. He didnt reply again, and Seth watched as his leader gathered up a sheet, tearing it into strips. He put the cloths under his arm and then picked up a bowl of water and a jug with one hand, and two candles and a bottle of whiskey with the other. Seths mouth turned up in his all too familiar sneer. "Ya gonna fix up their wounds?"
"Yeah I am. No need for em to suffer any more than they have to."
Seth sat up quickly in his chair as Jake approached him.
"Next time ya say that, Ill shoot ya."
"Hell Jake, ya wouldnt know where the trigger was on yer gun."
Jake stared hard at the older man for a few seconds and then turned on his heels and walked towards the door in the back of the room. "Joe, open this door for me."
* * * * * * *
Vin lifted his head with a start as the door to the outer room opened and a pale light entered the room. He watched as someone stepped further inside and closed the door behind them. It took a few seconds for his eyes to adjust as two candles were lit and set on the table beside the bed.
"Oh joy, more outlaws," Ezra sighed as he too watched the man moving about the room. "The silent kind too it seems Is anybody else hot?"
"Ez, ya got a fever. Keep quiet, pard," Vin told the gambler. The fact that he also felt hot was neither here nor there. Hed been thinking of ways to escape, but had so far come up empty.
"Shut up both of ya," Jake ordered as he knelt beside Ezra.
"What ya doin to im?" Vin asked worriedly as he saw Jake reach for something on the table. He relaxed when he heard the sound of water moving around in a bowl.
Jake winced as he pulled back the bloody shirt from the injured man beside him, the bullet looked to have gone straight through the man's side, so he decided to clean the wound as best he could and move onto his next patient.
"I would be obliged if you would find it within yourself to stop trying to help me, and help another instead," Ezra groaned loudly as the expected pain hit him like a thunderbolt. The cool water against the wound in his side was soothing and excruciatingly painful at the same time.
"An Id be obliged if ya shut yer mouth," Jake answered, taking the cloth away and replacing it with another. This one was doused in whiskey, and Ezra cried out in pain as it hit his wound.
The room became eerily silent; the only sounds heard being gasps from the gambler and water splashing in the bowl.
Jake stood finally and, picking up the bowl, moved to the window. Opening it slightly, he threw the red coloured water out and closed the window securely once more.
Ezra felt the bandage that had been placed around his middle, and closed his eyes. He felt better he had to admit, he just felt as though hed betrayed himself a little by letting this miscreant help him.
Vin watched as Jake poured fresh water into the bowl and moved over to kneel beside him. He tensed as the outlaw reached out towards his injured leg. "Its fine. Leave it be."
Jakes hand stilled over the younger mans leg. "Let me clean it for ya. Itll feel better, and might stop it being infected."
Vin looked at the man at his side for a few seconds and then nodded resignedly. He leaned his head back once more against the bed. Why was he helping them if he was going to kill them? He didnt dare believe that they would actually get out of this in one piece without having to escape; that was too good to be true. But if they were going to die, why was the head of the gang helping them? It was all too much to think about now, Vin knew he couldnt fight his injuries forever, but he had to at least try. He decided to keep himself focused by talking. "Whyd ya bring us with ya? Ya could be in Mexico by now," he asked tiredly.
"Aah!" he sat up quickly when Jake tore his trousers open to get to the knife wound. "Could ya take it easy?" He felt himself shivering again; his wet clothes were not helping his situation one little bit.
Jake carried on working as he answered Vins question.
"Needed to meet up at the cabin. See who survived your friends guns." He shrugged. "You were our insurance."
Vin nodded. "Yer men are out of control."
Jake continued to work on Vins leg. "Shut up," he said not looking up from his task.
Vin persisted, making Ezra wonder if the tracker had a death wish. "Yer not a cold blooded killer, Id guess ya dont like killin."
"Want me to prove I do?" Jake glanced up at his patient, not ready for the steady blue eyes that looked straight at him.
"Ya dont," Vin stated with a certainty.
"Oh Lordy," Ezra groaned. Damn, he was hot, and getting hotter by the minute as he listened to Vin trying to get them all shot.
Vin continued, sensing he was right. The outlaw seemed flustered, and was working quickly to finish bandaging Vins leg. "Why didnt ya leave us, and just head out?"
"I knew you and your friends would come after us. We needed somethin to protect our backs. You were our protection."
Jake reached for the bowl and stood up. The insight of the man at his feet had unnerved him. Was he really that transparent? He shook his head, wondering what it was about the long haired peacekeeper that made him speak so freely around him. "Get some rest. Looks like yer friends killed the rest o my men. Well be makin an early start."
He turned quickly and picked up the whiskey with his free hand. He kicked the door twice and when it was opened by one of his gang, he walked out of the room and the door closed behind him, blowing out the candles and leaving the hostages once more in darkness.
* * * * * * *
Buck and JD broke camp early, as soon as the sky was light enough for them to see. JD had started the day in an optimistic mood, but after an hour of not being able to find the trail, he was despondent again.
They were riding alongside a small river, and, although neither of them voiced their thoughts, they both knew they would probably not be able to pick up the trail again if the outlaws had travelled through the water.
Something else was bothering Buck, there had been no sign of Ezra. He comforted himself by thinking that Ezra was still following Vin closely but it didnt stop the nagging at the back of his mind that was telling him another of their friends was in trouble.
"JD? Anything?" Buck finally dared to ask.
"No. Nothing," the younger man replied. He turned a sad face to Buck. "Think weve blown it Buck. Weve lost the trail for good."
Buck sighed and opened his mouth to speak when his horse stumbled. "Easy boy," he whispered quietly, as he sensed the panic rising in the animal.
He turned back to look at JD. "Reckon we need to stop, and decide what to do, kid," he said quietly.
JDs head shot round. "We cant. We gotta keep lookin. Well find em Buck I know we will. We have to."
Buck frowned; he was getting an uncomfortable ride all of a sudden. "Hang on JD." He stopped his horse and dismounted.
JD reluctantly stopped too. "Buck, come on. We cant give up. Vin wouldnt give up on us." JDs voice was desperate.
The ladies' man was walking around his horse, looking at the animals legs.
"Whats wrong Buck?"
"Not sure, just checking." Buck bent down and lifted one of his horses hooves. "Ah, shit. No."
"What?" JD jumped from his horse and went to stand beside his friend.
"Hes cut his hoof up, look. Must have trod on somethin sharp back there." Buck put the horses hoof once more on the ground. "Gotta go back to town and change horses, JD."
JD hung his head. "You go, I can carry on."
"No." Buck had had enough pussy footing around. "I aint leavin you out here alone. Theres enough of us missin already. We both go back to town, get fresh horses, and come back out."
"He could be dead, already. They both could. You just wanna go back and see if Chris is okay. You dont care about Vin and Ezra. Hey, you could have your friend back, without Vin buttin in."
Anger rose like a forest fire inside Bucks chest. He grabbed JD by the shoulders and shook him. "Now you listen here boy, and you listen good. I care about Vin and Ezra as much as you do. Dont you think its tearin me up inside? All I can think of is whats happenin to em. So dont you go off tellin me I dont care; I do, more than youll ever know," he continued to hold the younger man's shoulders, but his anger ebbed away slightly as he saw the tears glistening in JDs eyes. "Yeah, Im worried about Chris, itd be good to see if hes okay. Nothin I want more than to hear im bellowin at us again, and glarin all over the place. But I know hes in good hands JD, hes safe. And I know Ez and Vin aint. But we gotta think right here, boy. We need to go back."
JD stared intently back at his mentor and finally his shoulders sagged. He nodded his head twice, walked over to his horse and climbed once more into his saddle. "Lets go home. Sooner we get there, the sooner we come back."
Buck smiled a small smile and climbed carefully onto his horse. "May have to ride in the saddle with you in a while JD," he told the young Sheriff.
"Just as long as you dont sing," JD replied.
They turned their horses and headed for home. Not noticing the cluster of trees on the opposite side of the water, hiding a small clearing. A man walked out from behind one of the trees and lowered his gun. He turned and walked back towards a cabin, to tell his boss what hed seen.
* * * * * * *
Chris hadnt had a bad night. He still had a fever but Nathan and Josiah between them were managing to keep it down. The healer had managed to get the gunslinger to take some laudanum, to help him with the pain in his shoulder, and Chriss two friends were pleased with the way things were going.
"Im gonna head out after breakfast, Nathan," Josiah informed the healer.
The two men turned to see Chris trying to sit up.
"Chris. Stop that now." Nathan rushed to the gunslingers side and tried to ease him back onto the pillows.
"Help me sit up, or I go with im." The green glare still managed to unnerve the healer and without saying a word he reached for more pillows.
Between them, Josiah and Nathan soon had Chris in a sitting position. He rested his head back on the pillows, berating himself for the thousandth time for getting shot. "Guess no-ones turned up then," he said tiredly.
"Sorry Chris, no," Josiah answered, handing the leader a cup of water.
The blond sighed, and gasped, clutching the bedclothes in pain.
"Easy there now. Its gonna be okay," Nathan soothed.
Chris shot him an angry look. "You dont know that Nathan. So dont bother sayin it. Im finished with positive thinkin." He clenched his teeth as pain soared through his shoulder.
Josiah and Nathan shared a look.
"Im goin now Chris. Im gonna say well see you soon. Cause Im not through with positive thinkin." Josiah opened the clinic and stepped out, smiling as Chriss soft voice caught his attention.
Casting a look back towards the bed, the ex preacher grinned his famous toothy grin at the injured man and then closed the door behind him.
Chris looked back at Nathan, an apologetic look on his face. "Im angry
with myself, Nate," he offered as explanation for his rant.
"No need ta be Chris."
"I didnt think any of it through. The plan was hopeless. A few days ago,
I was tellin Vin to take a step back and think before he acts, and I didnt take my own advice."
"We were all there, makin the plan Chris. I had this talk with Josiah last night y know."
Chris raised an eyebrow. "You did?"
"Yeah I did." The healer smiled. "Reckon were all tellin ourselves the same thing, and beatin ourselves up about it."
"Least you werent the ones who told Vin to step back and ponder," Chris said wryly. He raised his eyebrows and his voice went up a notch. "Can I have some water, Nate?"
Chris sipped from the cup Nathan held to his lips, relishing the cool fluid as it went down his throat.
"You should get some sleep," the healer told him.
"Yeah, I should." Chris shut his eyes and was immediately in a deep sleep, so he didnt see Nathan slide to his knees on the floor, lower his head, and begin to pray for the lives of his missing friends.
* * * * * * *
"Are we gonna have this conversation again Seth?"
The four outlaws were sitting around the table drinking coffee and making plans for the day. Theyd all slept fitfully, and realised by morning that they were the only ones left in their gang.
"Yeah we are Jake. Until you get it through yer head we gotta kill em."
"What is it about them ya dont like Seth?" Jake stood up and walking to the hearth, threw the remainder of his coffee away.
"Theyre trouble. And you know it. Well never be rid of em, theyre bad luck."
"And you think that by killin em were gonna be home free?"
"Yeah I do."
Jake stood staring at Seth for a few seconds and then turned to look through the window. He was weary. Bone tired in fact. His gang was almost non-existent, the men that were left looked like they were planning a revolt and a scrawny Texan with long hair and piercing eyes that dug into your soul had made him step back and look hard at himself.
He bowed his head and shook it from side to side. He was lost. Didnt know which way to turn. One thing he did know though was that hed finished with this life. He was going to start again, afresh.
But that didnt solve the problems he was having now. He started to feel angry, more from frustration than anything else, but anger none the less. He looked over to the table by the window and his eyes fell on the Texans gun. Maybe he did know what to do, to end this fiasco once and for all and to get the hell away from there.
He walked towards the window and when he reached it he turned back to face Seth and the others who were watching him expectantly.
"Ya know what Seth? Yer right," Jake said finally.
"Ya kidding." The older man couldnt believe his own ears.
"No I aint. They gotta die. I wasnt thinkin straight. Theres no other way round it."
Seth stood up quickly. "Ill go do it now."
"No." Seth watched as Jake picked up the gun Cleet had taken from Vin the day before. "Ill do it."
The older man narrowed his eyes. Could he trust Jake to do it?
Jake moved towards the bolted door. He turned back to look at the three men who were watching him closely. "Ya know the stash ya keep askin me about? The one from the last two bank robberies?"
"Yeah, ya wouldnt tell us where the money was," Cleet answered.
"Its right here, below the floor. Theres a cellar, look under the mat in front of the stove."
The three outlaws scrambled to where Jake had indicated, and sure enough under the mat was a door. "You three go find it, careful its dark down there. Theres three sacks. Ill meet you out front. But be careful, remember the two Joe spotted earlier, they might come back."
He watched as the three men disappeared through the hole in the ground, and then turned and unbolted the door.
Jake walked into the room and closed the door behind him. He stood looking from one bound man to the other until his eyes finally rested on Vin.
"This has gone on long enough. I blew this one, its time to stop."
The three men stared at Jake, who had their undivided attention.
"Im a robber, thats all I ever wanted to be. I never wanted to kill anyone. When I set out, I knew I would, but I hated it every time. Thats why I always took time over my plans, so they would work without causing too much death. I hate bein violent."
"You gave a very good impersonation of it yesterday," Ezra noted.
The outlaw turned to look at the feverish gambler. "I had to put on an act for my men, I always have to. But its wearin me down. I cant do it anymore."
"What ya gonna do now?" Vin didnt like the look in Jakes eyes. He was defeated that was for sure, but there was a determination in there too. A shiver went through him, and he knew it wasnt only from the feel of his still wet clothes against his skin.
"Youll be my last mistake. It ends now." Jake walked over to where Vin sat tied up on the floor. He raised Vins gun and the three trussed up mens eyes grew wide as he readied it to fire.
Seth stopped what he was doing as a shot rang out. He was clutching a sack of money and he and the other two outlaws were looking for the rest.
A grin spread across his face, and grew wider as he heard a second shot and then a third. Hed killed two birds with one stone. His patience had paid off, the money was now in his hands and those low life peacekeepers and that whiney passenger were dead.
Now there was just one more thing left to do.
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