Proof of Innocence
Size: Approx 105K
Vin Tannerone of seven feared and respected lawmen of Four Corners, an exceptional sharpshooter and tracker, once a bounty and buffalo hunter, former army scout, raised and welcomed by the fierce Comanche tribeswoke with a pounding headache and promptly threw up, nauseated by both the concussion hed sustained the night before and the plodding movement of the horse over whose bony back he was tied.
Stomach empty and feeling only slightly better for it, Tanner tried to clear the rank taste of bile from his mouth but couldnt work up enough saliva to spit. Clenching his teeth against the throbbing pain in his skull, the longhaired Texan carefully opened his eyes. Sandy brown desert filled the young mans vision, an occasional patch of cactus or yucca plant breaking the otherwise barren landscape. The movement of the lurching ground was much too similar to that of his stomach at the moment, so Tanner closed his sky-blue eyes and tried to recall how he had ended up in such a predicament.
Until about a year ago, Vincent Tanner had been a drifter, having nothing but his name, his horse, and his gun to live by, being pursued by his former colleagues for a murder he didnt commit. Then, desperately needing to earn money for food and bulletshe refused to become the criminal he was accused of being by stealinghed drifted into a dusty little border town looking for work. Not only did he find a job, he found a family: six men who offered friendship and protection, two things Tanner had lived without for most of his twenty-odd years.
All seven men-become-brothers had lived hard, rough lives, and all carried numerous and deep scarsphysical and otherwisebut in one another they had found new hope and an odd, eclectic family. It was far from perfect, and they were often arguing in one form or the other, but over all there was a new strength felt by each man, a web of support that existed no matter what life threw at them.
Unfortunately, that new sense of securityfostered by the presence of six others watching his backhad left Tanner less cautious when out on his own. Which was how, as he slept under the stars and away from the noise of the town last night, a couple of men with his wanted poster had managed to surround and surprise the sleeping tracker. Not inexperienced with dangerous hunts themselves, the two had knocked Tanner out and tied him up before he had had a chance to defend himself.
That had occurred at about four in the morning the night before, and, judging by the absence of any substantial shadows around the riders and their mounts, Vin figured it was around noon of the next day. His guess was confirmed as one of his captors spoke up in a voice as dry and cracked as the desert surrounding them, Well, nice a ya tfinally join us, Mister Tanner! His lazy drawl identified him as a fellow Texan, and the knowledge of his name confirmed Vins suspicions as to their bounty hunter status.
The speaker, a tall, thin man wearing threadbare Levis and a flannel shirt that might have been red at some earlier stage in life, pulled Vins horse to a stop. His shrewd eyes squinted at Tanner for a moment from the deep folds of weather-roughened skin, the iron gray gaze giving nothing away but undoubtedly reading a great deal from his perusal. Finally, satisfied with whatever he saw, he waved a browned and callused hand towards his companion.
At his gesture, the much younger, slightly better attiredhis shirt was still obviously blueman sitting a beautiful dapple-gray mare dismounted and began to untie the ropes binding Vin across the horses back. He must have been the others son; Vin easily observed the same quiet confidence and veiled gaze the older man had displayed, not to mention the similar build and facial features. Smothering the sudden, sharp stab of sorrow and painful envy, Vin intently yet surreptiously studied the knots used to bind him. The boy was definitely a master at restraints, his hands moving with the ease of oft employed movements.
Even as the last knot came loose and Vin began to slide down the animals side to the ground, the older manprobably around his early fortiessmoothly unholstered a well-oiled and maintained six-shooter, pointing unerringly for Tanners rapidly beating heart. Wouldnt want you to be getting any ideas, now. His eyes, not unkind, were nevertheless wary and unyielding. The poster does say Dead or Alive, and while Id prefer not to haul a corpse all the way tTascosa, I will.
Even had Vin not been shaky from a concussion and lack of food or water, the steady assurance and granite in both mens faces would have made him think twice before attempting anything. As he was weak-kneed and trembly, he simply nodded once before mounting up, gratefully accepting the canteen the boy handed to him. His thirst finally quenched, he sat quietly while the teenager efficiently rebound his wrists, this time to the saddle horn. As he waited, Vin spared a thought for his own demon of a horse, Peso, and wondered if the spirited black stallion had managed to escape.
Something of his thoughts must have shown through his overly expressive eyes as he stared at the borrowed brown gelding, for the older mans voice again grated out soft words: That big black ayers wouldnt let either one of us near im, so were forced to leave im tied up where e was. His eyes suddenly twinkled in suppressed humor. I magine any beast wi a temper like that could chew imself loose afore ed starve.
Vin returned the amusement, one corner of his mouth quirking up ever so slightly. I magine e would. The mans words gave Vin new hope, for when Peso got loose, the headstrong horse would head straight back home to Four Corners. His arrival, without his buckskinned owner, would stir his six friends into a frenzy of worry. Chris Larabee, the semi-acknowledged leader of the ragtag band of men and Tanners best friend, was probably already burning a hole through everyone and thing that crossed his path with those two green firebrands he used as eyes.
The black-clad man had a healthy dose of worry in regards to the younger trackerworry returned in full by the latter as wellthe two men having connected somehow at the moment of first encounter. There were times that Vin could swear he heard Larabees thoughts as clear as his own, and other times Larabee seemed to feel the same. The other five peacekeepers often lamented the peculiar way they had of communicating through the medium of their eyes, forsaking the crude and bumbling way of words.
Vin, counting on that uncanny thread binding two minds together as sure as any chain or knotted rope could, sent a concentrated and trembling thought speeding toward his soul-brother: Help!
Buck Wilmington sighed in contentment as he stepped out onto the boardwalk in front of the boarding house. The sun was shining, there was a breeze blowing, and Miss Charlotte was smiling coyly at him from across Main Street. A wolfish grin spread across his strong, handsome features as he waved jauntily back. Yes, life was good.
At least, it was for some. Even as the tall, gregarious ladies man began to make his way over for a more satisfying greeting, a flash of black and the sound of ringing spurs snagged his wandering attention. Sighing regretfully, Wilmington turned from the womanly charms of Miss Charlotte to face instead the controlled violence of Christopher Larabee.
The tempestuous history of the two men stretched back to the irresponsibility of teenage years, through the blood and terror of the War Between the States, to a wild and memorable stint in the US Marshals Service. From there Buck remembered Chriss insanely joyful marriage to an angelic woman named Sarah Connelly, and the stability and love the birth of his son Adam brought to both men. Because Chris had never cut the dark-haired, broad-shouldered man he called best friend out of his life, Buck had always been welcome on the Larabee Ranch, and thus frequently found himself spending weeks on end in the little guest room built especially for his use, eating wonderful meals at Sarahs ever abundant table, helping Chris break in the untamed horses and shamelessly spoiling his blonde, green-eyed godson at every opportunity.
Then, one day he and Chris crested the hill that hid the ranch house from the casual observer, returning one day late from an unsuccessful buying venture, to find an immense tower of oily black smoke billowing from the still smoldering remains of Larabees house and family. Ella Gaines, once an old girlfriend and then convinced Chris belonged to her, had hired a man to kill the woman he had chosen to marry and the son theyd had together. The grief and despair of that loss nearly sent Larabee into Deaths arms by his own hand, and did indeed seem to chase him into Hell on Earth. The delirious happiness Chris had once known was consumed by scorching flames, and into the resulting vacuum had rushed the blackness of anger and the viciousness of rage, all fueled by grief, regret, and bottles upon bottles of rotgut whiskey. None of it was enough to fill the gaping hole in Larabees soul, but accompanied by that festering wound it sent him into a downward spiral, leading him to strap on his pearl handled peacekeeper and court death at every opportunity, even as he had once courted his beloved Sarah.
Buck, himself almost overcome by loss and regret, tried to pull his friend out of the depths into which hed fallen and nearly lost himself in the process. Larabee, wounded and bleeding beyond what any man should endure, refused to move on, and lashed out with fists and words toward his once-best friend. Wilmington put up with it for years, following Larabee from saloon to saloon, watching his back against the growing number of enemies and dragging him into a hotel room once hed drunk himself senseless, but eventually hed had to quit. His love for the man hed once known had become tainted with sadness, and Buck couldnt watch that man slowly commit suicide any longer. The two parted ways, one to bury grief with whiskey and anger, the other with women and life, only to meet up once more in the little town of Four Corners, and there find healing, both for themselves and their friendship. The latter could never be as strong as it once had been, but the old boils of anger had finally been lanced, and true healing had begun.
Buck discovered a little brother in the young Easterner named J.D. Dunne, and Chris found a kindred soul in Vin Tanner. But age-old wounds heal slowly, and even now Larabees quick temper was more often riled than complacent. Especially during the unexplained absence of one of his men.
Buck allowed one more wistful glance at Miss Charlottes rosy face and ample bosom before turning his full attention on the approaching man. The sharp economy of Larabees movement lent him a fluid grace, and the focused intensity of his clear green eyes added an air of determination and authority. Power radiated from this man in waves crested with a subtle menace toward anyone or thing that threatened what he considered his. That aura, coupled with a well-deserved reputation of a lightening-fast draw, had discouraged many from causing trouble for any citizen of Four Corners, the seven lawmen notwithstanding.
Have you seen Vin? Like softly shifting gravel, his voice was low, and strong, yet with a rough edge, partly by nature, but also due to years of bad whiskey and the caustic tobacco smoke he enjoyed. An undercurrent of tension strained his words as well, sharpening his tone and making him more gruff than usual.
A teasing glint appeared in Wilmingtons deeply blue gaze, and he smirked a little as he said, Hey, Buck, howre you tday? Oh, just fine, Chris, thanks for askin. Sure is great weather weve had recently, aint it? As his longtime friend frowned in irritation, but remained silent, Wilmington heaved a longsuffering sigh before answering, No, I havent seen him since last night at the saloon. Didnt he say he was ridin out for the night?
Chris nodded once, a short, abbreviated movement that further betrayed how tense with worry the gunslinger was. As was his custom, Larabee had risen with the sun, dressing in his usual black clothing and eating the morning meal in the restaurant of his boarding house. The silence of the nearly deserted room was soothing, and Chris welcomed the fleeting solitude of a quiet morning spent in contemplation. Tanner, and occasionally Josiah, often joined the tall blond for breakfast at that time, but as neither tracker nor the ex-preacher was particularly given to unnecessary speech, their presence was calming rather than disturbing.
That morning, however, Larabee had woken with an undefined sense of unease, like that of a nightmare interrupted before the monster was actually encountered. But rather than fading, as such dream inspired emotions often do, the feeling had intensified, settling in his gut and behind his eyes. All his instincts were telling him that one of his men was in trouble, and Tanner was the only absent and unaccounted for out of all six.
Chris angled himself slightly away from Buck, scanning the length of Main Street and hoping to see the familiar slouch hat bobbing above a black horse with a white blaze across his face. Instead, the searching green gaze fell upon John Daniel Dunne, the youngest member of the seven peacekeepers.
Clenching a fist at the not unexpected disappointment, Larabee forbore a verbal response to Wilmington and watched as the young Sheriff rode towards them, the ivory grips of his matched Colts glinting in the noonday sun. He greeted the two men as he dismounted, then doffed his bowler and shook his head before joining them on the boardwalk.
J.D. Dunne, as he preferred to be called, had traveled west in search of adventure after the death of his mother. Using the money she had saved up so he could attend college, the young Bostonian had fled from the painful memories of her slow passing to begin life anew in the fabled West. All of her savings wouldnt have paid for more than a year of higher education, and Dunne had learned to read from the Bible and dime store novels featuring cowboys like Bat Masterson and Butch Cassidy.
So, he bought a bowler hat and a checkered suit, jumped on a stage and arrived in Four Corners just in time to see Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner save Nathan Jackson, a young black healer and member of the Seven, from being lynched by several drunken cowboys. As the other four soon-to-be lawmen began to pull together against a crazed Confederate general reliving the battles of the Civil Warwith a small Indian village as Union fightersDunne forced his way into the group, despite the stigma of his lack of experience and tender age. Since then, J.D. had accepted the office of Sheriff and truly carved out his niche in the diverse group of men termed the Magnificent Seven by the surrounding territories.
Whew, its hot out here today. Dunne ran a hand through his sweaty thatch of thick black hair as he squinted down the street. He resettled his hat and wiped his face on his sleeve as he turned to face two of the men he respected most.
Buck grinned at him, his blue eyes dancing with good humor. He swatted at the kids head as he said, Well, son, if youd buy a decent hat instead of that rag youre wearin now, youd probly be a lot cooler. That dang bowler wouldnt keep the sun off a doorknob.
J.D. ducked in an obviously well used maneuver as he blocked his friends arm, exclaiming as he moved, Would ya lay off the hat, Buck! I like it and Im not changin it. Besides, if that raggedy piece of cloth on your head is your idea of a decent hat then I figure mines moren suitable!
The frequent and amicable debate might have continued indefinitely, but Chris sharp voice cut through the banter like a hot knife through warm butter. Enough. He looked at the now-silent J.D. Have you heard from Vin? The thin crackle of hope was indiscernible to any except the other lawmen.
But J.D. shook his head in the negative, No, not today. Actually, thats why I came over here; Vin was supposed to relieve me on patrol over twenty minutes ago. Due to a reported bank robbery in Eagle Bend, a town slightly to the north and a days ride east of Four Corners, the Seven had begun daily patrols in addition to doubling the routine nighttime watches. J.D. shrugged uneasily. Vin usually shows up early to take over patrol, so when he didnt turn up at all I got worried and rode in to check with you guys. His dark brown eyes flicked uncertainly from the green stare of his leader to the blue of his best friend, wondering if his decision had been correct. I havent seen anyone, strangers or otherwise, all morning, so I figured it was safe enough to check in for a few minutes.
Larabees instinct solidified into certainty even as J.D. spoke, and he slid into action with a determination almost alarming in its intensity. His voice reflected the urgency that flooded his system with adrenaline as he directed his men. Buck, go tell Josiah that me, you, J.D. and Nathan are heading out to look for Vin, then saddle your horse and wait for us at the livery. Last I saw he was at the church. J.D., he paused, noticing the kids flushed face. Get a drink at the Saloon and then ask Tiny to find you a remount. Tell him to saddle up the others while hes at it. Ill tell Nate and Ezra. He stopped again, and recognized the doubt in Wilmingtons features. His voice softened slightly, but retained the determined tone, Im not overreacting, Buck. Somethings happened to Vin; I felt it this morning and J.D.s just confirmed it. He needs help.
The taller man studied his long-time friend, marking the thin-lipped mouth, the shoulders knotted with tension, the clenched right fist, and nodded slowly, thoughtfully stroking his thick black mustache. His grin returned, albeit less jovial than before. Im not about to argue with one a your hunches, old dog. Ill meet ya in the livery. With that he turned and strode purposefully away, hands in his pockets, whistling tunelessly. J.D. flashed his own excited grin at the blond before heading to the Saloon, alternately relieved hed done right in checking in and worried about his friend alone in the desert.
Larabee, amused in spite of himself at the attitudes of his two men, shook his head slightly as he turned on his heel and headed toward Nathans clinic.
I cd really use a shot awhiskey right about now, Vin thought as he rode between the two bounty hunters. Though receding, his headache still throbbed behind his eyes, and he still hadnt figured out how to get out of the mess in which hed found himself. The three riders had been moving at a fast walk for the better part of a day, and were now a fair piece southeast of the little town Vin called home. If they held at that pace, the bounty hunters would have their $500 reward within five days, and Vin would be hanged not long after. The very thought of being strung up like a mangy dog sent the buckskinned tracker into a cold sweat, panic rising up to freeze his lungs and blur his vision.
Tanner shook his head hard, almost viciously so, to contain the unreasoning fear that engulfed him. Such thoughts would do nothing but paralyze his mind when he needed to be at the apex of awareness. The father and son team were more cautious and capable than the average bear, but everyone made mistakes and Vin wanted to be prepared to take advantage of theirs. Besides, he told himself, Chris and the boysll come after me, soons Peso goes strollin in.
Having successfully distracted himself from what lay at the end of the road he was currently traveling, Vin turned his attention to his more immediate surroundings and began to study the two men flanking him. The older man, dressed in his worn clothing, wore a surprisingly new-looking Silver Belly Stetson, the four-inch brim providing ample shade for a face as lined and weather beaten as any Vin had ever seen. Iron gray hair curled above the mans ears and forehead, plastered to his skin from the sweat of riding all day under the hot Western sun. Strong hands callused by work and deeply tanned by that sun guided his mount with sure and confident movements, attesting to a long history with horses.
The mans son also wore a Boss of the Plains hat, but his was a light brown and looked to be slightly older, the three and a quarter brim retaining less of its original flat shape, but was well-cared for and more than adequate. The teenagerhe couldnt have been more than seventeen-years-oldhad the same pointed, dimpled chin and prominent nose as his father. His eyes, though just as observant, were a soft shade of blue that must have come from his mother, along with the black hair that wisped around to frame his youthful face.
As if sensing his scrutiny, the boy turned to meet Vins gaze with a stiff stare, as if challenging him to comment. Vin only grinned, truly amused at the defensive reaction that irresistibly reminded him of J.D. before he proved his capabilities to himself and the others. Not expecting such a response, the boy only frowned before looking away off to the horizon.
His father, having observed the entire exchange in his peripheral vision, furrowed his brow, puzzled over Tanners strange behavior. The Wanted poster he carried accused this long-haired man of cold-blooded murder, naming him armed and extremely dangerous, but all hed done since being captured was to sit silently and watch the miles roll by under his horses hooves. Frank Jennings had turned in many wanted men, no few of whom were accused of murder, but none of them had ever failed to protest their innocence, and hed never been inclined to believe them. This young man hadnt said a word, and yet Jennings couldnt help but wonder how valid his murder charge was.
The old man shook his head, dismissing such considerations as he decided that it didnt matter. Five hundred dollars was a lot of money, and a judge had found this man guilty in a court of law. That made him fair game.
Dang it, Ezra, if you dont quit squirmin around Im never gonna git these stitches in. Or theyll be crooked and Ill hafta take em out, sterilize it again, and start all over with a new string. Now, hold still!
Chris grinned despite his worry for Vin as he listened to the chastisement booming down the staircase that led to Nathans second floor clinic. The tall, kind-faced healer had a voice that could soothe a patient like a purring house cat or growl like one of those cats much larger cousins. Right now his deep tones were colored with heavy irritation, undoubtedly directed at their resident gambler and fellow peacekeeper Ezra P. Standish.
Out of all the friendships formed when the Seven coalesced, that between Nathan Jackson and Ezra Standish was probably the most surprising. A former slave, still bearing the marks that a life of bondage had lashed into him, Nathan nevertheless possessed a deep well of compassion that spurred him to try and aid any ailing body. Not a certified medical practitioner, Nathan had, however, served as a medic during the Civil War and had learned much as he observed and occasionally assisted the military doctors. In any case, regardless of his repeated protestations, the others had taken to calling him Doc and turning to him for relief from illness or injury for which, more often than not, he would have a remedy.
On the other hand, Ezra Standish was a gambler by trade, having learned the art of deceit and subterfuge under the expert tutelage of his mother, Ms. Maude Standish. He had, in fact, been running a small scam when he was first introduced to Larabee, Tanner, and Jackson. Raised in the rich white South, Standish had initially refused the invitation to join the other men to defend the small Indian village due to Jacksons race, only accepting when he learned of an abandoned gold mine nearby.
For as long as he could remember, Ezra had modified his behavior, his personality, to reflect back to people what they expected to see. His mother taught him that genuine, unconditional affection was a myth, and that any personal relationship was worth nothing more than how much money it offered. Because of this, hed hidden all emotion deep within himself, presenting instead a mask of indifference.
But in those six men, the selfish and arrogant façade that Standish displayed to the world discovered something that shook its very foundations, something that cracked that previously unbreached wall to reveal the loneliness and compassion hidden beneath. He found acceptance. Acceptance of who he was, not what he appeared to be. The others had cared enough to work through the many shields Ezra surrounded himself with to find the personality beneath the elevated vocabulary and expensive clothing. They had even excused the fact that Standish almost abandoned them when the Confederate soldiers seemed poised at the edge of victory, though not without a furious rebuke from Larabee.
Jackson had been the first of the pair to extend a peace offering when he reset Ezras dislocated arm, earned during the last stage of that first battle together. The friendship progressed, slowly and with many setbacks, but had eventually developed into a strong bond of understanding. Ezra worked to remove any lingering Southern prejudice from his beliefs, even as Nathan did the same with his own. All seven men had their rough edges and preconceived notions, but the responsibilities of friendship demanded verbal rather than physical altercations, at least at first. And all were grateful for Nathans medical ability, their frequent and loud complaints aside.
Please forgive my audacity in expressing the significant discomfort that the insertion of a needle into my extremely sensitive epidermis in order to seal an insignificant wound produces. Ezra glared at the dark healer working on his right forearm, his thick Southern drawl made even more pronounced by irritation and pain and almost obscuring his trademark ten-dollar words.
Half an inch deep and two inches long, and he calls it insignificant, Nathan muttered to himself, though his gaze remained fixed on his self-appointed task. Tying off the last stitch, he glanced at Ezras face before retrieving a nearby roll of soft white linen. Howd you manage to slice yourself up like this, anyway? You could a hit one a these veins an bled tdeath in lessn fifteen minutes.
Ezras emerald green eyes immediately slid to scrutinize the planks of the clinics wooden floor, faint embarrassment staining his fine cheekbones. Well, you see, I he broke off, at a loss for words, much to Nathans amusement. That is, I was attempting to retrieve His stumbling explanation was mercifully interrupted as the door swung open to reveal the tall, lean form of Chris Larabee, who entered the room uninvited though not unwelcome. Standish, well trained in the interpretation of facial expressions and the reading of body language, knew something was amiss before the de facto leader of the Seven stepped over the threshold.
Larabees gaze flicked swiftly from the now bandaged wound to Ezras face, and when he spoke there was real concern under the short words, You okay? At Standishs answering nod, he continued before the silver-tongued gambler could elaborate. Good. He turned to Nathan, I need you to pack up one of those medical kits and get ready to ride out. Vins missin and we gotta go drag his sorry ass back to town.
Nathan nodded his agreement, worry filling his dark brown eyes, You think hes hurt?
Larabees lips thinned, and he responded, I think hes in trouble, and that its best to be prepared. Nathan nodded again and began to neatly pack a leather satchel with what supplies he thought might be needed.
Ezra stood from the wooden examination table, automatically reaching for his hide-away holster and accompanying derringer. Am I to be included in this party? Tanner was a good friend, and had saved his life more than once with a well-placed bullet.
No. You and Josiah need to stay and watch the town. Bucks comin with us, and J.D.s gonna see if Vins tracking lessons have taught him anything. The tone of his voice was unyielding, though his eyes softened a little with understanding. I know youre worried about him too, but those bank robbers from Eagle Bend are still unaccounted for.
Ezra pursed his lips in annoyance, but knew what he said was true. Besides, the gash in his arm, though not life threatening, was still serious enough that it could hamper his ability to defend himself should the search party encounter any trouble. His frown deepened as he realized that his forearm rig was unusable until the wound healed. He dipped his head in acknowledgement of Larabees decision, a wavy lock of chestnut brown hair falling over his forehead. Very well, I shall remain behind to man the fort while you venture forth to retrieve our wayward comrade.
The corner of Chriss mouth twitched upward at Ezras dramatic words. Thanks, Ez. Ignoring Standishs black look at the detested shortening of his name, the blond nodded once to Nathan before heading back out the door toward the livery.