Josiah ran down the steps of the clinic, and almost collided with Inez when he reached the bottom. Tipping his hat, he smiled broadly at her. "Maam."
"Josiah, I need help at the saloon. There is some trouble over a card game and I think it will get out of control."
As if on cue, a gunshot rang out, and Josiah broke into a run, pulling his gun from its holster as he made his way hastily to the saloon.
Three people ran through the bat wing doors as he reached them, and he figured out quickly that none of them were part of the argument clearly going on inside.
He stood outside, preparing to go in and deal with the problem. But before he did he closed his eyes and spoke softly. "Sorry boys, looks like I may be a mite longer." That done; he took a deep breath and slowly opened the doors of the saloon.
* * * * * * *
Vins body jolted as the loud report of his gun filled the air, he stared transfixed at the wall behind Jake and waited for the pain that never seemed to come. Was he dead? His going so swift that he hadnt even realised it? The throbbing in his head, and constant searing pain in his leg told him that there was no way hed passed on to the after life. So what was happening? It seemed like an eternity, but at the same time, only a few seconds, before his brain finally registered what was happening.
Jake had fired the gun into the ceiling.
His head snapped around when he felt something pulling painfully on his wrists, and he closed his eyes as the room began to swim before him. A sigh escaped his lips as he realised his hands were untied, relieving the uncomfortable position hed been in.
"Hurry up. I only kept em busy for a few minutes." Jakes voice seemed to echo through his skull, and he shook his head quickly back and forth a couple of times to clear the fog.
Vin snapped himself out of his stupor and leaned forward, hastily untying the ropes around his ankles. Hed picked up on Jakes urgency and didnt have time to question the outlaws actions. His only thought was he had a shot at freedom and he sure as hell wasnt going to blow it.
He rolled over onto his hands and knees, aware that Ezra was speaking, but not registering what he was saying. No loss there he figured, seeing as Ezra usually spouted a lot of words, but said very little with them.
He began crawling the short journey over to Ezra, for a split second pausing and tensing every fibre in his body as he heard his gun being cocked again. He scurried quickly to Ezras side and reached for the ropes at his wrists, wheezing as his breath caught in his throat. He felt the sweat running down the side of his face, and he actually felt a discomfort as it slid over a bruise on his cheek.
He worked vigorously at the knots that bound his friend, and had released the gambler's hands and was working on his feet when the second loud shot pierced the silence.
Ezra rubbed at his sore wrists. "Mr Tanner, I believe you would do well as a diplomat," he observed, rewarding Vin with the recognition of having secured their freedom. He was scruffy to look at, but Lordy did that Texan have a silver tongue!
"Dont reckon I had anythin t do with it, Ez. Now come on, no time t parlez, move yerself." Vin sat back on his heels and threw the rope that had tied Ezras ankles to one side.
Grabbing the gambler by the arm he helped the ailing man to manoeuvre himself until he was sitting on the bed. Ezra held on tightly to the mattress with both hands, breathing heavily. "Why thank you Mr Tanner," he gasped, noticing the pain filled expression on Vins face. "Perhaps between the two of us, we have the ability to help each other homeward."
Vin grinned, despite himself. He felt like hell. His leg was beginning to throb from hip to knee, and shards of pain were running into his ankle. His head hadnt stopped pounding since the day before, his ribs felt bruised and raw and his eyesight was a series of blurry, moving images. With all of that to contend with, plus his still damp clothes, which were making him feel cold, he knew they had an interesting journey ahead of them.
"Hurry up," hissed Jake. "Or were all goners." The outlaw had Vins gun trained on the door, which he was watching warily. He knew he was in danger now too, but that still didnt make him feel happy about maybe having to shoot one of his gang.
Vin shot the gang leader a look, but didnt reply. He slowly pulled himself to his feet, not being able to stifle a gasp of pain. "m fine." He said as he caught a blurry glimpse of Ezra preparing to comment.
Steadying himself by placing a hand on the bed, Vin slowly limped his way around to where John Somers was still securely tied.
Ezra watched Vin as the tracker slowly lowered himself to his knees. He looked at Jake accusingly. "You can see the man is struggling. A helping hand may be useful," he grimaced and put his hand lightly to his bandaged side, deciding getting angry didnt help him at the moment. Jake glared at him and then continued his ritual of looking from Vin to the door and back again.
Ezra realised all of a sudden what Vin was doing. "Vin! Leave him. He is not worthy of your help."
"Cant leave im Ez," Vin responded, his voice muffled as he carried on his task of freeing Somers, not looking at the gambler. "Hell be killed. Cant have that on m conscience."
"If yer about ready," Jake said impatiently. Cocking Vins gun at the same time.
Vin tried to hurry with the ropes, but was all fingers and thumbs. He could sense Ezra watching him incredulously, and could feel the tension in the room. He sighed deeply and closed his eyes for a second as the last knot was finally untied. He felt Somers eyes on him, questioning his actions, but had no time to talk to him now. In his book, a hostage was a hostage, whether he was after his hide or not, and there was no way in hell that he would have left anyone behind; and he doubted that Ezra would either, whatever the southerner had to say about it.
Somers climbed to his feet and steadied Vin as the sharpshooter rose slowly. The two mens eyes met for the briefest moment, a thanks and a yer welcome silently passing between them.
The third shot startled them and Jake finally found his tongue again.
"Through the window. The horses are out back. We moved em last night. Hurry up and git, before the others come in here to check up on us." He reached into the back of his gun belt and retrieved the guns theyd found on Ezra when he was unconscious and held them out to the gambler who took them as quickly as he was able, returning them to their rightful places.
The three men made their way as quickly as they were able, to the window. Jake and Somers opened it and John was the first one through. He turned back and held out his hands, ready to help Ezra, who Vin had pulled forward. The gambler slapped away the bounty hunters hands. "I am perfectly capable " he stopped and grimaced at the pain the action of climbing was causing. " of extricating myself, without any help from you sir."
Sure enough, Ezra proved he was right and was soon standing on the outside, looking in. "Mr Tanner, may I be of assistance?"
"I can manage jus fine, Ez. Get yerself to a horse, Im right behind ya."
Ezra nodded and turned away, slowly making his way to the grazing animals, a hundred feet away.
Vin slowly climbed through the open window, stopping half way to let a wave of agony pass before he continued. He was startled to feel a hand on his shoulder, and another under his elbow, and looked back to find Jake was helping him.
"Thank y preciate it," Vin rasped, his glazed blue eyes carrying the full depth of his gratitude.
Jake released his hold when the sharpshooter was safely through and smiled wryly. "Reckon my gang leader days are over," he said, and then his face turned serious again. "Now, hurry it up. Cause the rest of my gang wont shoot into the ceiling." The gang leader held out Vins gun to him, and the tracker nodded his head and took it, placing it in its holster.
"Good luck," Vin drawled, and found himself almost asking Jake to go along with them. He immediately thought better of it, knowing the leader had things to finish up. He turned away from the window and limped slowly over to where Ezra had fallen to the ground.
"Lets go pard," he said, and grunted as he pulled his friend to his feet. "No time t rest now."
The two peacekeepers leaned on each other for support and made their way slowly to the horses. Somers was already mounted and waiting for them and watched as Vin untied Chaucer, all the while holding Ezra upright.
"Time t get up on there, pard," Vin drawled to his friend. "Reckon ya can put yer foot in the stirrup there, Ez?"
"I shall do my utmost, Mr Tanner," Ezra slurred, really beginning to feel quite unwell now. He slowly and painstakingly lifted his leg and almost cried out in glee as his foot miraculously landed in the stirrup. He felt himself being pushed from behind, and made as much effort as possible to help in getting himself into the saddle.
Eventually Ezra managed to swing his leg over, and was seated uncomfortably on Chaucers back. He heard wheezy, heavy breathing below him and looked down. Vin had his head resting against the horses saddle, and Ezra felt guilty, knowing that it had probably taken nearly all of the trackers strength to help him into the saddle. Now, who was going to help Vin?
Vin took a deep, painful breath and pulled Ezras foot from the stirrup. He carefully picked up his leg and couldnt help exclaiming in pain as he pulled with all of his might finally securing himself in the saddle behind Ezra.
He rested his head against the gambler's back for a few seconds, breathing heavily; and Ezra didnt mind a bit. Vin Tanner deserved all the support he could get. After all, he had kept all of them alive.
Vin waited until the nausea and pain subsided, and he couldnt help wondering how he himself was going to stay on Chaucers back, let alone hold onto Ezra.
Hell he was hot, and he could feel the signs that his body was threatening to shut down. He reached around Ezra for the reins and somehow got Chaucer moving with Somers following behind.
The bounty hunter was thinking over Vins actions of the past two days. Hed saved his life more than once, and back at the cabin he could quite easily have left him tied up, to meet a certain fate, but he hadnt. That made Somers feel humble, and guilty and confused. But he pushed the feelings to the back of his mind; there were more urgent matters to attend to, like getting the hell away from the outlaws. As they passed the other horses he leaned over and released their tied reins, allowing them to wander free if the urge took them. He hoped it would. It might buy them some valuable time.
The relief was overwhelming as Jake watched the horses disappear, although he did wish they were travelling a little faster. He grimaced as he thought of the injuries that two of the three men were having to fight against and hoped against hope that they would make it to safety.
Hed never had anything go wrong before. His plans were so finely tuned that they left no room for error. But this time hed screwed up big time. He should have got himself and the rest of his gang the hell away from the stagecoach the moment he smelt a rat, and that was quite early on in the proceedings. But hed wanted to prove something, he wasnt sure what he was trying to prove or who he was trying to prove it to but right now one saying sprang to mind. Pride before a fall That sure as hell was right!
He shook his head in bewilderment as he absently picked up the discarded ropes from the floor. When had he become so thoughtful? Exactly how did it happen that hed suddenly changed sides? Although right at that moment he felt more like someone standing in the middle of a conflict, not quite sure of which side he belonged to.
If he really thought about it, which he figured he had been over the last two days, what it really all boiled down to was him trying to follow in his fathers footsteps. Oh, he had enjoyed all the excitement and revelry when he was younger, he couldnt deny that. But some things about his lifestyle had never sat quite right with him; and just lately it was becoming a constant headache trying to be someone he wasnt.
A certain long haired, buck skinned peacekeeper had finally made him take a good look at himself and make a decision that hed been putting off for far too long.
Well, it was too late to go back now. He just hoped the other three believed him when he told them that hed killed their captives. He was going to distribute the money between them and disband the gang. After that it was up to them what they did, he was going to get the hell out of the crazy business he was in and live a quiet, law abiding life. Something he should have done a long time ago.
Jakes head shot round as the door suddenly opened and his heart sank as he saw Seth appear in the doorway. The older man stood just inside the door, his head flitting from side to side, taking in the empty room, all except for Jake.
"I knew I shouldna trusted ya, ya double crossing bastard," Seth spat; a loathsome sneer on his face. He turned his head around and yelled into the other room. "Cleet! Joe! They got away, get after em!"
Jake heard footsteps clambering on the wooden floorboards and stood stock still as his eyes again met with Seths murderous ones.
He decided to try and reason with the older outlaw, but wasnt sure if he would succeed. Things were spiralling out of control and he could feel himself losing grip. "We dont need em Seth. Lets take the money and go to Mexico." The look on Seths face made Jake realise he was right, there was no way that this was going to be easy.
"They know what we look like Jake. We cant let em get away." Seth spoke through gritted teeth as he took a step further into the room.
"Everyone knows what we look like. We never tried to hide it. Why kill em when it aint gonna prove nothin?"
"Dont try n get outta this one, Jake. Ive had it with ya, Im takin over." Seth took another step forward, he was now only a few feet away from his leader.
Jakes heart sank as he heard gunfire coming from outside the cabin. Did Cleet and Joe do what he couldnt? Were those three men dead after all?
He sighed heavily. He couldnt help out there right now; he had to focus his attention on Seth. "You can have the gang, whats left of it. Im through."
"You sure are."
Jakes eyes grew wide as he watched the older man raise his gun.
Seth sneered and his eyes lit up with satisfaction as he took in the look of horror on Jakes face. "Goodbye and go t hell ya Goddamn Sonofabitch." He pulled the trigger once, twice, three times and his sneer grew more evil as he watched the light of life leave Jakes eyes before his body even started to slump bonelessly to the ground.
* * * * * * *
Joe and Cleet ran through the door of the cabin and saw the two horses in
"Howd they get away?" Joe yelled as he took aim and fired. He wasnt sure if they were hitting anything as they ran, continuing to fire at the fast disappearing horses. "Lets get in the saddle," he said finally to Cleet.
The two men spun around and both nearly jumped from their skins as they heard three shots ring out.
"That come from inside?" Cleet asked.
"Dont ask no questions. This is turnin to a pile o shit."
The two men reached the cabin just as Seth appeared in the open doorway.
"Did ya get em?"
Joe skidded to a halt. "Not sure. We took a few shots but they were a way away."
"Okay. Lets get after em. When were done, we can git across the border." Seth joined the two men running to the back of the cabin.
"Wheres Jake?" Cleet dared to ask, fearing the worst as he looked warily at Seth.
"He aint comin. Hes a traitorous turncoat," Seth offered no further explanation and the other two men glanced at each other, acknowledging to one another what they now knew was true.
Jake was dead, and Seth had killed him.
The three men stopped dead in their tracks as they realised the horses were not where they should have been.
"Those bastards," Seth yelled in frustration.
"Its okay boss," Cleet stated, seeing the satisfaction on Seths face at the use of his new title. "I can see em, they didnt go far." He pointed to a group of trees two hundred yards away where the horses were busily grazing.
Seth grinned an evil grin and the three men ran to their horses.
* * * * * * *
Vin knew they had to quicken their pace, but didnt relish the idea. Those shots had been far too close for comfort and he knew it wouldnt be long before the outlaws were on horseback. All the time hed been a prisoner in the cabin his injuries were a definite discomfort, but now theyd raged to the surface, threatening to engulf him. The movement had certainly not helped, but it had been either get the hell outta there, or die. He sighed. If he hurt this much he didnt even want to hazard a guess at how much Ezra was hurting.
"Ez? We gotta move a mite faster. Reckon yer gonna be okay with that?"
"Mr Tanner. If you are able to endure the discomfort, then I can also."
Ezra could feel Vin leaning heavily against his back and tried to offer a solid form for him to lean against. It wasnt easy, the pain in his side was beyond description and he was so damned hot. He could feel the heat coming from Vins body too and knew they were in serious trouble. They were at least a day away from Four Corners by his reckoning and that was much too far in Ezras book.
He took a sideways glance at Somers who was keeping pace with them, but saying nothing, and Ezra wondered if and when he was going to make his move against Vin. He was surprised he hadnt already, unless he was waiting until Vin had got them all to relative safety before he pounced.
An anger rose in him that he didnt realise he had the energy to muster. Well, let him try, he thought, squaring his shoulders. Ezra was ready for him, and would kill him with his bare hands rather than see him haul Vin off to a certain death.
"Im ready when you are Mr Tanner," the gambler informed Vin, bracing himself for the increase in speed.
"Ez, weve been movin faster fer the last five minutes."
Ezra raised his eyebrows in surprise. Well, if pondering took his mind off pain, he decided he should do it more often.
He shook his head slightly and grinned when he heard a Tanner chuckle coming from behind him.
* * * * * * *
Josiah sighed as he left the jail. The trouble in the saloon had been nothing more than a drunken brawl. Hed locked the four men up in the cells until they cooled off and sobered up.
He looked in the direction of Nathans clinic. Hed have to tell the healer what was going on and if Chris realised that he hadnt set off after the others yet, he was going to be more ornery than a woodpecker in a desert.
He put his hands determinedly in his pockets and strode towards the clinic, someone had to watch over the prisoners, and the only peacekeepers in town were Nathan, Chris and himself.
His heart sank as he thought of the rest of his friends. Lord knows what they were up against. A toothy grin slowly appeared on his face. Hell! They could be drinking from Ezras fancy hip flask right at this moment, standing over the bodies of the rest of the outlaws. Buck would have his arm lazily around JDs shoulders, trying to educate him in how to woo the ladies. Ezra would be brushing the dust from his colourful jacket, telling a grinning Vin how much he deplored the way the Texan spoke, and trying to teach him a few five dollar words and Vin would be humouring the gambler and slowly winding him up like only Tanner could.
Josiahs grin fell from his lips. But what would Somers be doing now? Did the others have him all figured out and tied and gagged on his horse while they partied? Josiah would like to think so, but that was the best case scenario. He didnt want to think about the worst.
No sirree. He wasnt going to send his thoughts in that direction.
Reaching the clinic steps, he held onto the side rail and took the stairs two at a time. He walked as quietly as he could along the veranda and opened the door, hoping against hope that Chris was asleep and he could usher Nathan outside. His hopes had been a little high. Before anyone inside could possibly have seen who it was a voice bellowed out of the room, defying the fact that the person the voice belonged to had been shot the day before and had a fever.
"Josiah! What the hell you still doin here?"
The ex-preacher grimaced, stepped into the darkened room and quietly closed the door.
* * * * * * *
"Stop! Im in trouble!"
Theyd crossed the river and were on the other side when Somers called out to them.
Vin pulled on Chaucers reins to stop the animal and turned his head slightly in Somers direction. "Whats wrong?" The raspy voice was quiet; his energy was leaving him in a hurry now. He was mad at himself for that. Just when he needed it most it was going to disappear.
Somers opened his mouth to speak but before he could utter a word, his horse slumped to the ground; the bounty hunter falling with it.
"My horse. I think he was hit back there. Felt him lagging for a while now." He pushed himself to his feet and checked the dying animal, who was snorting softly, its breathing laboured.
Vin sighed and leaned his head against Ezras slumped back. The gambler had passed out about five minutes before and it was all Vin could do to keep them both in the saddle.
He pushed Ezra forward gently so he was leaning over Chaucers neck, and once he was sure his friend was safe, Vin leaned his weight to one side and carefully dismounted. He couldnt stop a groan as his sore body protested at having to hold its own weight. A pain shot through his thigh and his head thumped in rhythm to the throbbing in his leg.
Slowly and painfully he limped over to where Somers was checking on the fallen horse.
"Dont think hes getting up again," he informed Vin, not looking up as he sensed the sharpshooter at his side.
"Reckon yer right," Vin agreed, seeing the bullet wound in the horses side. He didnt know how the animal had gone on for as long as it had, the wound was bleeding badly and the bullet looked to be still inside. "Best we send im to is peace."
Vin started to unholster his gun but was stopped by a hand on his arm.
"The shot is going to let them know where we are." Somers looked at Vin questioningly. He thought that Tanner had more sense than that.
Vin shook his head once, and reaching out with his free arm he pushed Somers hand away. "I know that. But I aint leavin this horse t suffer. They know where were goin so we aint exactly givin away our position."
John said nothing, but stood and stepped away from the dying horse. As he saw Vin take aim he turned away and walked towards Chaucer. He flinched as a single loud gunshot rang out. Yep, Tanner was full of surprises. He even spared a thought for a dying animal, not letting it suffer; even if it put them in peril.
Somers was impressed.
He was startled by a raspy Texan voice at his side, not having heard Vin approach. "Were down t one horse. Reckon you and Ez can share Chaucer." It was a statement, not a question.
John stopped and turned to look at the pale Texan. Well, that was pale except for the spots of red on his cheeks, a certain sign of a fever.
"Tanner, I cant leave you out here."
Vin misunderstood the reply. "If yer worried about the bounty, dont be. Ill come to Tascosa with ya if we get outta this in one piece. Jus gotta worry bout one thing at a time I reckon."
Somers opened his mouth to respond but Vin did not give him the chance.
"Can we stop talkin and start movin?"
"I refuse to share a horse with that individual."
Vin sighed and began to limp towards Chaucer. "Ez, ya have to. Weve only got one horse n Chaucers it. Ya can be back in town in a few hours."
"And you Mr Tanner? Where will you be in a few hours?"
Vin couldnt answer his friend. For the sole reason of not knowing himself. He shrugged and opened his mouth to speak.
"No, I wont listen. Ezra Standish is known for his stubbornness, and this is one time that I intend to prove it to be true." Before Vin could stop him, the gambler leaned his weight to one side and began to slide from his horse.
The tracker could see what was about to happen and stepped forward quickly to catch his friend before he hit the ground, head first. But unfortunately it was at that moment that his injured leg chose to give way,
making him fall heavily to the dirt.
He let out a cry of pain, and looked up helplessly as Ezra continued to slide from the saddle.
Vin blinked a few times. A blur had appeared in front of him; so close he felt the rush of air cross his face as it passed by. He concentrated hard and gradually made out Somers lowering Ezra to the ground.
He breathed a huge sigh of relief, and winced when he felt his bruised ribs object to the movement.
"Do that again Ez, n Im gonna have t kill ya," he rasped as he attempted to climb back onto his shaky legs.
"Mr Tanner, I can assure you, it will not be one of my regular pastimes." Ezra looked disdainfully at Somers, and shrugged the bounty hunters hands off of his upper arms. "Please refrain from placing your hands on me, sir."
John couldnt help smiling. "You dont like me do you, Standish?"
"No I do not," Ezra replied. "I think you are a loathsome individual and the sooner we are rid of you the better."
"Fer once I agree with ya, Ez," Vin said as he hobbled over to the two men. He looked at Somers. "Maybe not about the loathsome part, but gettin outta here sure seems like a good idea."
He reached out and grabbed Chaucers reins. "Best you two get goin theyll be on us soon."
"As I informed you before, I am staying with you, Mr Tanner."
"Ez, thats loco."
"Maybe so. I have been called worse." He shot Vin an impatient look when he heard him snort. "Neverless, I intend to travel with you."
Vin lowered his head and moved it from side to side. He started to sigh but stopped himself, remembering the pain it had caused last time. "Alrighty Ez, you win." He looked at Somers. "Best you get goin."
"I must admit, I dont like to leave you out here."
"I know m way around out here. Im the best one t leave." Vin answered, and John had to nod in agreement. "When ya reach town, tell em were out here, tryin t get back."
"That I will do, Mr Tanner. You have my word."
It was Ezras turn to snort.
Vin and Somers exchanged amused smiles and the tracker handed over the reins of Ezras horse.
Climbing into the saddle, John looked down at the two injured men, wondering how they were going to survive. It crossed his mind that he should be the one walking back to town and they should be riding, but he could ride faster, and get help quicker. He wasnt injured.
"Get goin an travel fast."
The bounty hunter realised then that the only reason Tanner had given in to Ezra was the fact that a healthy rider could move faster. The tracker was one step ahead of them all he decided, a very clever fellow indeed.
"Good luck." Somers tapped the edge of his hat and turned Chaucer around.
"You too," Vin answered quietly as the bounty hunter dug his heels into the horses sides, sending Chaucer into a gallop.
Vin turned back from watching horse and rider disappear and sighed when his eyes rested on Ezras form. Hed slumped to the ground and was resting his head on his knees. Vin squinted as his surroundings once more blurred around him making him feel nauseous. Gulping hard twice he quelled the need to vomit and slowly began limping towards his friend. It was gonna be one hell of an interesting journey, he was sure of that.
All at once he stopped, his head snapping up; alert. His eyes darted from side to side, his ears straining to hear.
"Damn it!" He whispered and quickened his pace as much as he could to reach Ezra.
Stooping down he grabbed the gambler under his armpits. "Cmon Ez. We gotta hide. Theyre nearly on us!"
He looked around for a good place to hide from the fast approaching outlaws and spotted their only hope. Grunting in pain as he dragged Ezra to his feet he ignored the protests of his body as he pulled his friend along, trying not to make any obvious tracks.
He stepped into the water and before going deeper, he shifted Ezras almost unconscious form so he was balancing against Vin. The sharpshooter reached for his and Ezras guns and moved as fast as he could through the water, pulling the gambler along in one arm and holding the guns above the water with the other. He took a further step into the river and all at once it became much deeper, submerging them to their shoulders. It was a relief to Vins struggling body, as the water made Ezra more buoyant and easier to pull along. He moved to the bank, and set the miraculously dry guns in the long grass, within easy reach. Holding Ezra by the shoulders he assured that they were well hidden by the long grass on the edge of the bank, and hoped it would be good enough cover.
Just in time, they were still. Too afraid to move, in case it caused ripples in the water, Vin prayed Ezra wouldnt regain consciousness at that moment.
Through the cover of the long grass and struggling with his blurred vision, he saw horses legs; and much to his alarm they stopped just in front of where he and Ezra were hiding.
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