Disclaimer: Not mine, no money, yada yada yada.
Author's Notes: A huge thank you to my betas, the poor souls. As diligent and patient as they are they deserve a medal.
It was an unusually warm spring day despite the darkening skies that only added to the pall that seemed to hang over the small town. As the stranger made his way slowly down the main street it didn't take a genius to figure out that something was definitely amiss. Even if impending weather might keep some indoors, the town seemed almost completely deserted, except for the brush of curtains on many of the windows now and again. The strange sensation that he was being watched caused the short hairs on the back of the young man's neck to rise, but he showed no outward signs that he was otherwise aware of any pending trouble.
Despite the heat a light breeze blew across his shoulders and straight through the thin material of his shirt, causing a slight chill to run down his spine and he had to fight the urge to stiffen in the saddle. He had faced stares and watchful eyes on many occasions, the phrase "a strange man in a strange land' came to mind, though this time felt different. An unusual feeling permeated the air, like the slight charge on the wind just before a severe lightning storm. For now, he would just play it cool and take care of business. Riding up to one of the buildings that designated itself as the local general store and dismounting casually, he threw his horse's reins over the hitching post outside and walked up the steps.
The bell on the door jingled, startling the shopkeeper out of her reverie. After earlier events Gloria Potter had not expected to see anyone darken her door unless... Her eyes round with apprehension took in the stranger that had just walked in. The man, or more like boy, looked to be no more than a teenager and not someone she remembered seeing in town before. This had not been a good day and one more soul in danger was not what she wanted to see. Watching the young man closely as he took off his hat and ran a hand through his hair, she reaffirmed her earlier perception, she didn't recognize him and he was young, too young, to be in this town right now.
Short sandy hair that hung just below his ears framed a baby soft face that showed such innocence it hurt her heart. She couldn't help but wonder if he was even old enough to shave. The young teenager looked like little more than skin and bones and the worn dusty blue plaid shirt he wore practically hung on his skinny frame. The equally dusty dark pants he wore made her wonder if he were one of the children of the new farmers that had moved into the area. Some of them had been into town, but still a couple of the newer families that lived a bit further out had yet to make it into town. The small group of settlers had moved into the area over the last month. They were a group of immigrants whose accents were only slightly unusual in the west as people from all over, even different countries, were slowly making their way out to forge a new life for themselves and their families. The lack of a firearm only confirmed her suspicions that he was nothing more than a young farm boy who had come into town for the first time. She prayed that it would not be his last.
The young man's eyes roamed inquiringly around the shop as he slowly made his way toward the counter. Clearing her throat to dislodge the lump and cover the fear she knew would escape, Mrs. Potter spoke. "Can I help you, young man?"
"Yes, please." The strange accent was slightly familiar and yet still unlike anything she had heard before, but as his head tilted up the large blue eyes held her attention. Fidgeting with the brown hat he held in his hands he looked over the items on the shelves behind the counter. "I'm in need of coffee, flour..." Seeming to struggle with the right words the young man looked up at the shelves nervously, pointing to a couple of other items.
"Ah, some salt and sugar." Mrs. Potter was quick to get the items down, hoping that the transaction could be quickly taken care of before something happened. Still her innate curiosity got the better of her. "I don't believe I've seen you around here before."
But before the young stranger could answer her query the bell over the door jingled again. The dark figure that entered caused her heart to skip a beat, but she quickly averted her gaze and went about fixing up the young man's order. Maybe she could get the boy out of the store and headed back out of town without incident or more bloodshed. As the new arrival slipped into the back aisles the young man answered her query.
"Me family, we came here... from the east... last month." Something about the voice and the eyes nearly melted her as she watched the confusion cross the young face, the brows drawn up in concentration as he seemingly struggled to find the correct words to answer her. "Name's Ian, Ian McTavish. Me dah sent me in fer supplies."
Had the situation been different, Mrs. Potter would have found the strange accent a touch more than fascinating. And she had to admit that she was a sucker for twinkling blue eyes. Just ask one particular sharpshooter with a quiet drawl and a keen sweet tooth. Her heart clenched at the thought of Vin Tanner, knowing full well the situation the town now faced would weigh heavy on the lanky sharpshooter's shoulders. She just hoped to God that he didn't go and do something foolish.
The seven diverse men who now made it their duty to protect this town might not have the support of everyone in town, but they certainly had the devotion of one widowed shopkeeper. Not only because they had brought the man who had made her a widow and left her children fatherless to justice, but also because they deserved it. Just in the few short months they had been working for the Judge, Gloria Potter had lost count of the number of times these same men had risked their lives to protect the people of Four Corners, even those who still spoke against having such rough men serving as the law. Somehow those particular voices seemed to have faded into the background every time the seven foiled a bank robbery or kept a gang of trail hands from taking out their boisterousness on the town.
And there were a number of women in the town, young and old, who had taken to the two youngest. JD with his wide-eyed innocence was just too endearing and Vin with his quiet smiles and "yes, ma'ams' could melt the coldest of hearts despite his rough and rugged exterior. One minute you wanted to just squeeze the life out of them and the next you wanted to scold them like children and tell them to take better care of themselves.
Breaking out of her reverie Gloria noticed the other man that had entered was slowly working his way around toward the counter. Feeling her skin begin to crawl she tried to move the young man before her along. Maybe, just maybe, he could get what supplies he needed and get on out of town. Surely a young farm boy like this was of no consequence to the evil men now practically holding the entire town hostage.
"Is this all you need, young man?" She couldn't quite keep the quiver from her voice and hoped that the boy didn't notice.
"Yes,..." The boy looked up, almost startled as if ashamed of what he was about to say.
Gloria wondered if the boy was not completely familiar with the English language, especially since she had yet to place the unusual accent. Jumping in quickly she tried to rescue him from his dilemma.
"You can just call me Gloria." Her eyebrows rose slightly, questioning if he understood.
"Yes, ma... uhm, Gloria. Thank yah."
She saw his eyes dart for a split second to the man now to his right, but would have missed it had she not been looking right at him. Beads of sweat began to run down the back of her neck. It wasn't that it was all that warm, but right now she was scared. Scared for herself and her precious children now huddled in the cellar. Scared for the seven men who protected this town. And terrified for this poor innocent boy who had unknowingly wandered into a living hell.
"Could you... hold these?" The young man gestured his hand toward the supplies. "For a time? I wish to... to go to... saloon."
Gloria nearly cried out a warning but stopped herself. Working hard to keep her voice even she tried to persuade a change of plans. "Today is not a good day for that. It... it looks like it's going to rain. You should take your supplies and get on home."
But her words seemed to fall on deaf ears as the young farmer turned, placed his hat back on his head, and walked toward the door. "Could be awhile "fore I can get back to town. Need a drink." And with that said the door bell jingled and he was gone, leaving behind one terrified shopkeeper and one disgruntled looking outlaw.
Inez had only had a few patrons when the first gunshots sounded. Only a few moments later, a rough man had come into the bar and ordered everyone there to stay put, vowing that the first head out either door, front or back, would be shot on sight. He also informed them that their seven peacekeepers couldn't help them because five were in the jail and one was on a very important errand to fetch the seventh that consequently wouldn't live to see the sunset.
Even though most of the town was now well aware of the bounty on Vin's head, most had enough sense to keep it to themselves. Some because they truly believed in Vin and his innocence. And the rest kept silent because breathing was a good thing and there was no doubt in their minds that to go against one of the seven meant facing the wrath of them all, especially one menacing gunslinger.
The gang member's words left little doubt in her mind that they were here for Vin and the bounty. What did surprise her were the lengths at which they had gone to get him. Not only taking his friends hostage, but even the town. Almost as if they knew of Vin's unquenchable sense of responsibility and incessant loyalty.
Trying to keep herself busy she had started cleaning the bar and reorganizing the bottles. The entire time her mind had been constantly wondering about what had happened, as well as the condition of the other peacekeepers. She knew that Vin was out on patrol. But she had watched out the window as JD had been roughly shoved onto a horse and sent out of town. Obviously he was to let Vin know what was happening. What would the young sharpshooter do? If he came into town he was as good as dead and if he didn't...
The sound of the batwing doors startled her and raising her head quickly she fully expected to see the same outlaw or one of his compatriots. The sight that greeted her left her mouth gaping. A young man, maybe a boy even, waltzed in like he didn't have a care in the world. Obviously someone had come into town without a clue of the mayhem that had taken place just a few hours before.
As she did with every stranger that walked through the doors she quickly sized him up. Dusty hat and clothes, no gun, short neatly trimmed hair, not a trace of facial hair to be seen and quite good-looking. But young, very young. Probably some kid who had decided to check out the town. She had met a few of the farmers that had just recently moved into the area, but this one was new, brand new and fresh off of the farm.
Walking up to the bar the young man stood and stared at the bottles on the wall like a kid in a candy store. The look of raw innocence on his baby face made Inez wonder if it were his first time in a saloon at all. Or maybe this young farm boy had decided to take the opportunity to try something new. It wasn't anyone she had seen before, but plenty of strangers came into town all of the time. Just very few of them looked as young and innocent as this one. Why was he here? Surely the men who had taken control of the town would have seen him coming and warned him off. Not that this one would prove much of a threat since he didn't have a gun and she wasn't even sure he would know how to use one if he did.
Making her way slowly toward the end of the bar where he stood, seemingly transfixed by the wonder of it all, she spoke. "Can I help you, uh, senor? She barely caught herself before she said niÃ±o instead of senor. His eyes never left the wall.
His voice was firm, but soft and she stood for a moment trying to puzzle it out before she turned around and grabbed a glass and a bottle. In one firm move the drink was gone before she could even blink. She had fully expected the boy to cough and choke on the strong drink, but instead the young man just wiped his mouth on his dusty sleeve.
For a moment she almost questioned him on who he was, but then decided she wasn't sure she wanted to know. It was hard enough worrying for the safety of the people of the town, especially those seven special men who protected it, without adding some wide-eyed boy to the mix. That very thought swung her mind in the direction of the two youngest of the peacekeepers. Having watched out the big windows in the front of the saloon she recalled the look on the sheriff's face as the outlaw leader shouted his instructions and smacked the horse's rump to send him on his way. Where was JD now? Had he found Vin? And what of the others in the jail? She had heard gunshots before. Was someone injured or worse?
These seven men had risked their lives once for a woman they barely knew. Lifting her head to stare up and crossing herself she prayed silently for the safety of her champions. "Querido Dios, que los guarde todos sanos y salvos por favor.'
For now she would keep herself occupied with what she had been doing before the young stranger walked into the saloon. She would wait, watch, and pray. Pouring the young man another drink she capped the bottle and started to turn around. Inez felt her blood run cold and her heart skip a beat when a hand snaked out and grabbed her wrist in a firm grip.
"Nathan? How's he doing?" Buck asked as he gripped the bars that separated the two cells from one another. It was all the ladies' man could do to keep from banging his head against the bars in frustration.
"Not so good." Nathan spoke, the venom in his voice unhidden and on purpose. The dark skinned healer also raised his voice another notch as he added. "I sure could use some supplies from my clinic in here right now."
"Shut the hell up or I'll finish things up so you don't need the damn supplies at all!" The angry voice came from the front of the jail where a man with dark hair kept watch out the window while his partner lazed himself in the chair behind the desk. A quick kick at the other man's feet followed. "And get your damn feet off of the desk and keep an eye out, you lazy dog!"
"Hell, Pete, it ain't like they're goin' anywhere." The other man said irritably as he got up and headed for the side door.
"Where the hell do you think you're going?"
"Gotta take a piss lessen you want me to just do it on them."
"Damnit Rex, I swear to God, I'm just going to shoot you if you don't start pulling your weight."
"Hey, I'm the one that found Tanner for you in the first place," the grouchy man replied as he went out the back door.
Pete Cox was about at the end of his rope. He knew that working with more than a couple of men was a mistake, but he needed help to get Vin Tanner. Even if it meant splitting the reward money, well, maybe he could take care of that little problem later, but right now he needed these five men who didn't seem to have enough brains between them to order dinner let alone take down "The Magnificent Seven'.
Pete had heard all about these men even before he discovered that one Vin Tanner happened to be one of them. The burning itch in his gut that had been eating a hole of hatred in him for nearly three years now was about to be scratched. And along with the satisfaction of taking care of a little long overdue retribution he would be five hundred dollars richer to boot.
The plan had been flawless, or at least had seemed that way until that idiot he had paid off in Steamy Branch had sent the telegram in the morning instead of the afternoon. It had taken him over a week of watching and waiting. Or, more like a week of waiting for his latest and very soon to be late partner, Rex Larkin, to scope out the town and the movements of the town's seven hired guns. Knowing he would have to get them all in one place to get his best shot at catching them off guard and making sure the other six were indisposed and unable to follow them, he had paid some prostitute to send a telegram to Larabee about a gang of horse thieves that were making their way through the area. A meeting would be called; all of the seven would be there. And, Bam! He would have his revenge and his money with a little help from the other four hired guns of his own. They didn't know about the bounty and were more than willing to work for a few measly dollars. It was amazing what people would do for money.
Of course, the plan had just seemed flawless. How could he have known that the stupid woman would send the telegram early or that Tanner wouldn't have been back from patrol yet or that Larabee would go ahead and call the meeting without one of his men present? Everything had spiraled out of control and now he had five peacekeepers locked up in jail. Larabee was bleeding to death because of that idiot trigger-happy Jacobs, who was now number one on Pete's list to shoot as soon as possible. That fancy gambler was unconscious after Rex had knocked him senseless when that hideaway derringer had popped out. That damn black man wouldn't shut up about needing supplies. The big preacher man just kept quoting scripture and praying the God awfulest prayers. The tall one with the mustache just kept pacing the cell and staring daggers at them. And worst of all, it had been nearly five hours and there was still no sign of Tanner.
Surely that boy of a sheriff he had sent out to find him hadn't keeled over from that tiny graze before he could finish the job. Not likely, or else Tanner would have just ridden into town already, totally unaware of the danger that awaited him. Maybe Pete had miscalculated. Back when he had ridden with Vin Tanner the young bounty hunter had been beyond honorable, to the point that it had cost Pete over two hundred dollars and two of his fingers. Even though they had only just joined up on the trail three months before, he hadn't expected the boy to take such offense at the thought of taking a bounty in dead instead of alive. Sometimes it was just easier that way, especially when all the loud mouthed bounty could talk about was his innocence and the wife and kids he had left behind.
And he sure as hell never expected Tanner to shoot him in the hand, tie him up in the middle of nowhere and ride off with that very bounty. No count, good for nothing, double-crossing snake! Well, Pete Cox was about to get the last laugh. At least as soon as that backstabbing do-gooder got his ass back into town and traded his five hundred dollar hide in for his friends and the safety of this backwater town.
Buck watched the one they called Pete stare back out the window. His anger was beyond measure and he felt like he was about ready to explode like a stick of dynamite. His mind kept going back over what had happened and wondered what he could have done differently. What they all could have done that wouldn't have left him feeling like the whole world was about to come to a crashing end and he was helpless to stop it.
Nathan, Josiah, Ezra, and himself had been in the saloon enjoying a beer and a game of cards while Inez whipped them up an early lunch. Chris had been over at the jail with JD, going through the latest batch of wanted posters to come in and going over some things for the judge. Then a telegram had arrived and Chris had called a meeting at the jail. Vin had gone out on patrol and had yet to return, but he had mentioned stopping at Nettie's to take care of a few repairs before making his way back to town and they all knew the older woman was quite fond of their reticent sharpshooter and was determined to "put some meat on his bones'. It had become a running joke that the woman only let the younger man help her fix up things so she could have an excuse to feed him. It would probably be late afternoon before the satiated man came back.
Nothing had seemed out of the ordinary and that very fact still bothered the big ladies' man. Surely one of them should have seen something. Noticed something amiss before... But that was all water under the bridge. Within a matter of seconds four men had burst into the jail, two in the front door and two through the back door. Guns were drawn but the six peacekeepers were at a significant disadvantage and not ready to risk each other's lives until the odds were more in their favor. Even after they had been relieved of their weapons things had spiraled out of control when one of the trigger-happy fools fired two shots. One caught Chris in the shoulder and the other had grazed JD's leg. Then Ezra had instinctively triggered his hidden derringer, hitting the idiot in the arm before he could do any more damage and earned a solid hit to the back of his head, rendering him unconscious.
It was all like a horrible nightmare that he couldn't quite shake. Nathan and Josiah had been forced to carry a grumbling Chris into one cell, while Buck had carried his unconscious friend into the other, carefully laying him on the bunk. But the look of fear in JD's eyes as he had been drug from the room was an image that tore at the very fibers of his heart. Buck hadn't even realized that the kid had been hit until seeing the dark patch of blood on the thigh of his pants as he disappeared out the door.
Now all he could do was stand here and worry as his anger grew. Was Chris going to be okay? Nathan sounded pretty worried. Even though he had finally gotten the bleeding stopped, the gunslinger had lost a lot of blood, which now lay drying on the cold wooden floor of the jail. Luckily the uncooperative patient had finally passed out after threatening to rip the hearts of each of the outlaws out with his bare hands. Ezra still hadn't fully awakened, only rousing once long enough for Buck to get some water into him before he was out again, leaving a trail of water dribbling out of his mouth and onto the fine green silk vest he wore. And had JD made it out to Nettie's or was he lying somewhere bleeding to death? Did he make it in time to warn Vin or was the sharpshooter at any moment about to ride right into an ambush?
Life in the west was hard and Buck Wilmington was no stranger to hard times, but he had found a new home, a new purpose, and a whole new family in these hardened men he now rode with. Though he had known Chris for years they had just recently been able to look beyond the past losses and move toward a renewed friendship. JD was like the little brother he had always begged his mother for. And the rest of the seven had come to mean more to him than he had thought was possible again. Now he felt utterly helpless as two lay wounded before him, his best friend was out somewhere injured, and Lord only knew where Vin was.
Buck swallowed hard, the acid that was churning in his stomach threatened to erupt as his thoughts took a decidedly ugly turn. The thoughts that had popped into his head brought a wave of shame. For a split second he almost wanted to see Vin walk right in that door and give himself over to the outlaws. What the hell was he thinking? That wouldn't solve anything and he sure as hell did not want to be responsible for the death of one of his friends, but he also was troubled by the thought of watching Chris die right here or having Ezra never awaken from the deep slumber he had drifted into. He had seen it all in the war. The horror and stench of death burning his nostrils even to this day.
No! He would not even think that again. The last thing he wanted was for someone else to get hurt. Sparing a quick look back into the other cell at Chris he realized that should anything happen to the group's sharpshooter his life would not be the only one forfeited. Over the few months the seven had gotten to know each other. Buck had watched as an unusual bond had formed between his old friend and the quiet ex-bounty hunter. Both men had suffered hard lives and, though they had survived, they were wary of others to the point of seeming unsociable. But not to each other. Somehow each man seemed to understand the other on some level no one else could. And even though his initial reaction had been one of hurt that Chris, the man who had once been his best friend and had practically pushed him out of his life, had so easily accepted the friendship of another, he had come to a whole new understanding. Almost like a natural formation forged from the depths of time, like a mountain range or a deeply formed gorge that you just suddenly ride upon with wonder. The friendship between Chris and Vin had from the very first day they met just... been. Damned if he fully understood it, but he had come to thank God for it.
Now, some months later Buck had come to not only accept the younger man as a vital part of Chris's life, but his own as well. Vin Tanner had not only earned his respect with his tenacious loyalty, but also his friendship. He, too, would be profoundly affected should anything befall the man who had not only renewed his faith in friendships, but given him a second chance with his oldest friend by helping him to realize that he had to accept the man Chris was now and stop mourning the man he used to be. That was probably one of the things that made the friendship between the seven's leader and second in command seem so easy. Both men accepted the other man for who he was, without judgment or expectations, complete with flaws and scars. Finally Buck could see more of the man Chris used to be now merging with the man he was today.
Vin was out there somewhere and if anyone could figure a way out of this it would be that wily tracker of theirs. Behind the rough looks and quiet demeanor lay a mind like a steel trap, with cunning enough to make even Ezra's mother proud. He just prayed that the boy didn't go and get himself hurt or worse in the process.
Tanner was notorious for going to extremes when it came to the protection of others. Not that he had a death wish, it was just that when someone else was in danger, that shrewd mind of his seemed to forget one very important factor. Vin Tanner was flesh and bone. And those materials did not stand up well against bullets, knives, long falls, and men that weighed over two hundred pounds.
Slamming his fist against the bars he muffled a curse as the blow reverberated in his wrist with a cleansing ache. Damnit, they had to do something.
"Might wants to be careful there, Buck." Nathan's voice was soft, coming from the other cell. "I gots my hands full enough as is without you going and breaking anything."
Turning around to meet the healer's eyes Buck was shocked to see his own fear and worries mirrored in their dark depths. Though he wasn't sure why he was surprised. Somehow they had all become caught up in this strange little family they had inadvertently created.
"Sorry." Afraid of what Nathan's sad look might mean he asked hurriedly. "Is Chris okay?"
"Best as can be right now."
Nathan realized that his tight mask of indifference must have fallen. Probably when his mind had begun to wander and wonder. Sure, he was worried for Chris and Ezra right now, but at least these were wounds he could see and understand. But he, too, had seen the blood on JD's pants leg, not voicing his find lest he create more worry for the others about things they could do little about at the moment. They all had to be feeling helpless enough as it was. That growing worry for the groups' youngest was only compounded by his fear for Vin.
What would Vin do? Would he risk his own life to save theirs? Hell, that wasn't even a question. The question was how. The man was too damn smart to think that just giving himself up to these bloodthirsty outlaws would mean their safety. No, they had already proven just how little they regarded the lives of others. But what could the sharpshooter do alone against six outlaws and with the safety of not only his friends, but the whole town weighing in the balance? No wonder Buck had just slammed his fist against the bars. He wouldn't mind hitting something or someone himself.
"Think JD made it and found Vin?" Buck had turned his gaze back to the front of the jail as he watched Rex come back in from relieving himself.
Nathan heard the worry in the other man's voice and realized that he hadn't been the only one to notice JD's injury. "I don't know, but he's as stubborn as the rest of ya."
Buck found it funny that Nathan didn't seem to include himself in his last assessment, which considering how the group's healer dogged each of them when they were sick or injured, stubborn fit him just as soundly.
"Hope that boy don't go and do something stupid." They all knew he meant Vin, without another word being said.
The quiet words came from the man lying prone on the cot behind Josiah and Nathan. Chris had been awake for a while now, his own thoughts traveling the same trails as the others though he hadn't known anything was wrong with JD. But he was an astute man and the worry in his oldest friend's voice spoke of a deep seeded concern.
"What's wrong with JD?" The quiet query was issued through tightly clenched teeth.
Nathan had turned around at the sound of Chris's voice and was checking the wound when the question was asked. Without a knife or the proper equipment the bullet still lay in the gunslinger's shoulder, making movement not only immensely painful but dangerous. Looking down into his leader's pain filled green eyes the healer answered the query.
"Looked like he took a bullet to the leg. Didn't notice "til they drug "im out. Saw the blood. Not sure how bad. Mighta just grazed "im, but... I just don't know." Nathan averted his eyes and continued to cleanse the wound with the small amount of water that was in the basin they had, fearing what further damage he could be causing the man, but not left with any other options at the moment. They had used Josiah's undershirt for bandages. The heat was already beginning in and around the wound. If the bullet wasn't removed soon, the outcome did not look favorable for Chris.
"We must have faith, my brothers." Josiah's low baritone rumbled out of the big chest as the big man sat in the corner of the cell. He had been pretty quiet for nearly an hour after Pete had threatened to "put a bullet through that no account cheater's skull iffen you don't shut the hell up'. At some point in Rex's stay in town Ezra had evidently engaged him in a friendly game of cards and subsequently cleaned him out.
"Faith? Faith?! Damnit! Chris is over there with a damn bullet in his shoulder, Ezra hasn't been awake good since that damned idiot clubbed him, JD's running around the countryside bleeding all over the damned place and when Vin finds out about all of this that damned Robin Hood is likely to get himself killed trying to fix it all. And let's not forget that we're locked in these damned cells and can't do a damned thing about it." Buck's tirade was loud and boisterous, his hands flying all over the place. And once he was finally done the other three started chuckling.
Buck was flabbergasted. He couldn't believe that they were laughing. Hadn't they heard a word he said?
"Could you perchance say "damned' one more time?" The low southern drawl arose from behind him and it suddenly dawned on him what he had said. While it wasn't that funny he also knew the others were as worried as him and it was either laugh or cry. How had such a pleasant day suddenly gone so sour?
"Okay now, what's put a burr under your saddle that this couldn't wait until we had our lunch." Buck's irritated tone changed as his next words conveyed the true nature of his concern as the six peacekeepers gathered within the confines of the local jail. "Inez was fixin' up some of them special tamales just for me. I think she's startin' to succumb to my animal magnetism."
"If I remember correctly she was preparing the extraordinary repast for the rest of us when you happened to stroll in." Ezra's tone held a note of humor, which didn't bode well for Buck's chances. "The lady in question has made her intentions or rather her lack thereof indubitably clear. Nunca does not leave a vast amount of room for interpretation."
"But I'm wearing her down. It's just gonna take time and patience." Buck declared with indignation. It just didn't seem possible that any woman, given his repeated attempts to woo them, could resist his charms forever. And there was no way in hell that he would admit that he actually respected Inez for her resistance, making the chase all that much sweeter. Nope, that little bit of information would never see daylight or else he would never live it down.
Chris Larabee was all too accustomed to the antics of this ragtag bunch of yahoos he had somehow found himself leading, but he wanted to get this meeting over with. He had plans to check out his little cabin in the afternoon and wanted to get it done as soon as possible and then get on back to town. A gang of horse thieves wasn't anything new to the lawmen of Four Corners, but he still felt better if he was in town should anything occur. If he could have, he would have forgone the little side trip altogether, but the storm that had come through the day before had him anxious to make sure the roof repairs he and Vin had worked so diligently on had held. And the strong winds might have brought down the lean-to he used to shelter the horses. That was just another of the numerous repairs still awaiting his attention that would have to wait a bit longer.
The small cabin, or "shack' as Vin liked to refer to it as, wasn't much but it was a lot more than he had had to call home in over three years. Truthfully, he hadn't even thought it possible for him to set down roots ever again. But things had changed after a chance stop over in a dusty little town called Four Corners. Now he found himself actually thinking about the future and what it might hold. More than that, he found himself caring for six men who had slowly become more than his coworkers and even more than friends. They were now his family in an odd sort of way. Well, odd except for Vin Tanner. The ex-bounty hunter's companionship had come naturally from the very start, their friendship seemingly born ages ago and destined to become a close kinship that suited both men perfectly.
Maybe he could even get Vin to ride out to the cabin with him. The younger man should be back in a few hours and he could take the time to tell Vin all about the meeting he had called as they rode.
As the other five men settled in around the room he was just beginning to read the telegram aloud when both the front and side doors practically crashed open. Within seconds, guns were drawn and a standoff was in place. One in which the town's peacekeepers were sadly disadvantaged. How the hell had that happened? They were men who knew how to take care of themselves. Always watching the windows and doors for trouble. Of course, Tanner was the most attentive and the others had obviously fallen into a deadly pattern of just expecting him to warn them ahead of time.
Vin had a keen sense of what was happening around him, both seen and unseen. As if he could predict trouble before it even occurred. The others depended on that natural ability to keep them safe and alive. Maybe a little too much.
The tension in the room was thicker than mud as the five outlaws stared at the six peacekeepers. No one moved or spoke for what seemed like much longer, but was only mere seconds.
"I don't know what the hell..." Chris's snarled words were drowned out as gunfire had them all scrambling to contain the situation. What exactly had happened would probably never be known for sure as one of the outlaws fired twice. Chris felt the searing pain in his right shoulder even as he slammed back into Josiah, who stood just behind him. The other shot went wide as Ezra's derringer fired, clipping the gunman. But that wouldn't keep JD from feeling the bullet graze his leg nor would it rescue the gambler from another of the outlaw's retribution as he was whacked over the back of his head with a gun butt, rendering him unconscious.
Though JD's injury hadn't been immediately apparent, the subsequent injury of the other two left the peacekeepers at a definite disadvantage and within minutes they found themselves secured within their own jail, tending the injured and fuming. JD hadn't been given the same courtesy as he was drug from the jail and ordered to bring Tanner back or else.
That had been five hours ago and the afternoon sun was dipping further toward the horizon, leaving angry outlaws, terrified townsfolk, and anxious peacekeepers. With each passing minute Cox was growing more restless. He knew Tanner would come. The damn, stupid, honorable piece of shit would never let anyone die in his place, let alone friends like these other men were supposed to be. Surely that worthless kid sheriff had told Tanner about the injury to that leader of theirs. Word was that of all of them, Larabee and Tanner were thick as thieves.
Well, for dang sure now they were going to have to take care that once they had Tanner no one would be coming after them. Of course, that would mean the stupid SOB would have to give himself over first. Okay, so the boy could sneak up on a whole regiment without alerting a soul. But that was the whole reason he had placed his men around the town to keep a look out. This wasn't just about the money, though that was a bonus. It was a matter of settling the score and bringing that self-righteous Tanner down a peg or two.
Tapping his fingers on the desk as he continued to stare out of the jailhouse windows, he felt his temper teetering on the edge. Maybe he should just shoot another of Tanner's friends to relieve the tension. Glancing back at the men who sat, lay, and paced in the cells at the back of the room, he studied each face and met each gaze without flinching, at least outwardly. That leader of theirs could just about stare a hole in a man without even trying.
He would give Tanner another hour and then he would just start taking out his frustrations on the other peacekeepers. It would give Tanner something to think about before he gutted him and hung him up to dry in the sun before he carried the good-for-nothing's carcass back to Texas for a little drinking money.
Inez looked up at the startling blue eyes that regarded her from under the dusty dark hat. Their intensity frightened her, but only for a few seconds as a realization even more shocking came to her. She knew those eyes and their owner would never hurt her, despite the firm grip he now had on her wrist. Quickly covering her surprise so as not to give away anything to the outlaw that suddenly entered the saloon, she instead poured the boy before her another drink.
Her mind couldn't quite reconcile itself with what her eyes told her. Her heartbeat quickened as the gang member strode toward the bar and the newcomer. Swallowing hard she turned back toward the wall, keeping an eye on things behind her via the mirrored backdrop. There were a couple of guns hidden beneath the counter and she was prepared to use them if she had to, but before the outlaw could approach the bar, the young man turned and headed out toward the back door.
"Hey! You!" The outlaw tried to get the newcomer's attention. He wasn't sure just who this boy thought he was, but maybe he could take out some of his growing frustration by beating the shit out of him. Sitting around all day in a hot dusty town was not his idea of fun, bounty money or not. "Farm boy, you deaf?"
The stranger never flinched or gave any indication that he had heard anything, instead continuing toward the back door and out of sight with the outlaw gaining on him and looking more incensed by the second.
Inez felt herself shaking as she watched the scene play out. What should she do? Fingering the gun beneath her fingers on the shelf she was just about to pull it out of its hiding spot when the quiet sounds of a scuffle sounded near the back door. Tensing even more she was torn. Inaction could prove fatal, but so could jumping the gun and alerting the other outlaws to any trouble.
Luckily the decision was taken from her as the younger man returned only moments later with a mischievous grin on his face. Another very familiar sight. Leaning against the end of the bar he turned so that the other patrons would not be able to get a good look at him or overhear what he was about to say as Inez hurried over.
"One down." His whispered voice was rough as he pushed away the offered glass of whiskey. "Maybe later, might need it then. Right now gotta keep my wits and take care of a few troublemakers." The young man winked at her and Inez had to work hard to keep herself from smiling.
"I almost didn't recognize you," Inez confided quietly.
"Well, that was the general idea."
"But your hair, the clothes..." This was not Vin Tanner and yet she knew it was. She had always expected that somewhere under the dust, the hide coat, and the scruff that there was a fairly young man underneath, but never in her wildest dreams had she imagined this. The toughened peacekeeper now looked younger than JD even and definitely like a wet behind the ears farm boy.
"Couldn't exactly jist stroll inta town like I was. The others are always joking with me that iffen I shaved, changed muh clothes, "n took a bath no one'd recognize me. Well, guess they's right about that." The short hair shook slightly with the tight shake of the man's head. "Lord, I ain't never gonna live this "un down. Maybe I should take that drink."
Inez pushed it back toward him, but he just grinned again. "Naw, but you keep me a bottle ready. Reckon I'm gonna need it when all's said and done." The blue eyes grew hard, the same world-weary look taking over as Vin grew serious. "Do me a favor and keep everyone in here. Keep yer head down, and maybe prepare some bandages."
Seeing the barkeep's eyes widen and immediately look him over he was quick to try and clarify. "JD says Chris got shot and that Ez was hurt, too. Jist wanna know that they's taken care of as soon as possible and with those two Nathan's gonna have his hands full enough."
"What else can I do? What are you going to do?" The worry was evident both in her eyes and her voice. Finally overcoming her shock over Vin's new look, she at least had some hope now. And she was going to help in any way she could. There were still more of them than there was of Vin.
"You jist sit tight and I'll take care of things." Tipping his hat Vin turned and headed not out the front or the back, but up the stairs.
Inez watched him leave with mixed emotions. Vin was here which was good, but she knew him well enough that she feared the risks he would take to free his friends. And where was JD? Surely Vin wasn't planning on taking on the rest of the gang all by himself. Her lips began to move as she silently began to pray once again in earnest.
Jacobs sat atop the mercantile and kept watch over the street below and the road out of town. That was his job and he was just about ready to pack it in and tell that ornery Cox where he could stick that gun of his. Why the man had gotten so mad about him shooting that gunslinger, he still didn't understand. Wasn't like they weren't going to just kill them all anyway once they got the Tanner fellow they were after. Couldn't have men that dangerous on their tails and that Larabee fellow was definitely dangerous. Hell, Jacobs had checked his clothes for singe marks after that glare he got from the man.
Something flickered in the corner of his eye and he turned his head to find nothing. Maybe the heat was getting to him. It was hot enough to fry eggs on this rooftop. Either that or those ghost stories that Larkin had been telling at camp the night before were making his mind play tricks on him. Feeling a cold chill run up his spine he glanced around once again, but saw nothing out of the ordinary.
One hour more, that was all he was giving Cox before...
The final thought he had was rudely interrupted by the sudden mass that tackled him without warning. Fighting back against whoever or whatever was attacking him all rational thought fled as his body, with the added weight of his attacker, began to slide toward the back edge of the roof. His mind filled with the sight of the long drop from the top of the back of the building as a hand clamped over his mouth to stifle his scream before he felt the emptiness beneath him.
Standing over the body of his fourth victim, Vin Tanner glanced up at the sky and rubbed at the sweat on the back of his neck with a bandana before throwing it to the ground behind him. It wasn't his anyway and he took no notice of the dark stain upon it.
It was getting later, the last two outlaws had put up a bit more of a fight and he was beginning to feel the toil. Of course(,) that fall from the roof hadn't exactly been a piece of cake. Lucky for him the outlaw had broken his fall, unlucky for the outlaw though. And that third one was pretty sneaky, hitting him in the back with that crate. Good thing he had a hard head, like everyone kept telling him. Then this last one had been pretty good with a knife, but not good enough. Still a few aches and pains were nothing to the fear he kept beating back that he might be too late.
JD had told him when he rode up to Nettie's that Chris had been shot and was bleeding pretty badly, last he had seen. And Ezra had been unconscious. With a few head injuries Vin had witnessed and suffered he knew that the gambler's condition could be unpredictable. For all he knew they were both...
Shaking off the morbid thoughts and the clawing hands of exhaustion that were trying to drag him down he prepared to take on the final leg of his plan to free his friends. It was amazing what fear could do to motivate a body, helping him to practically forget his own body's needs.
Moving behind the buildings he made his way back to the saloon. The first outlaw he had taken down had helped him with his final idea. Strange how many faces he still remembered from his days as a bounty hunter. Well, leave it to Cox to hire up the worst group of degenerates he could, the very same type of men he had hunted on many occasions. But luckily they were also not the brightest of the bunch. Vin figured, that of all of them, Cox would be his toughest opponent and that no good scum and his last desperado were all that stood in the way now.
Wiping his hands down the front of his shirt, he snickered at the foolishness of the action. He definitely owed young Ian a new shirt. Between the dirt, the blood, and the rips, it had pretty much had it. And he definitely had to clean up some before Inez got a look at him.
Lord, but he was tired. Why did situations like this always seem to come up when he was already near worn to the bone? Okay, just one more little... What was the fancy word Ezra always used? She raid? Nope, charade. That was it. One more charade and he would be home free. Well, that was if he could take care of ole Pete and his partner, free his friends, make sure Chris, Ezra and the rest were okay, and then skedaddle before Nathan got a good look at him. Or any of the rest of them, for that matter. Fingering his shortened hair Vin cringed. When he had said what he did to Nettie before riding off to the rescue, he had meant it with his whole heart, but that didn't mean he had to like it.