Chapter 1 - 10 | Chapter 11 - 22 | Chapter 23 - 30 | Chapter 31 - 39
As consciousness returned, Vin was aware of only one thing: pain. Pulsating, nauseating pain that seemed to fill his whole being. He kept his eyes closed, riding out the agony, vaguely wondering where he was, what he was doing here, and where the pain was coming from. After a few moments, he registered that he was sitting upright. His left shoulder and right hand that were throbbing in harmony. A while later, he managed to open his eyes a slit and saw that he was leaning against a rock. There was a makeshift bandage around his shoulder and three of his fingers were bound together.
Slowly, as full awareness returned, memory of recent events came back and he fixed on one thought - Josh had led him into a trap. He made to move and gut-wrenching pain shot down his arm and across his chest. He felt his stomach heave and leaned over to one side, retching until there was nothing left in his stomach to expel. He lay back, shaking, suddenly cold despite the sweat that was soaking into his shirt. The world around him was spinning alarmingly and he was only vaguely aware of movement and voices around him.
He closed his eyes and lay quietly until the nausea abated a little. Sensing someone beside him, he forced his eyes open and found himself looking into a pair of cold, hard eyes; eyes that had so recently sparked with amiability.
"Why?" Vin asked, his voice a harsh rasp.
"You know why," Josh replied sharply. "You should have thought about the consequences before you hurt Belle."
Belle? "Josh, I don't "
"You don't remember? You raped so many women you can't remember the name? You're disgusting!"
Raped? What was Josh talking about?
"Josh, I "
"Shut up." Josh moved away as the black-haired man, who Vin now knew was called Jake, moved into view.
"Kale, help me get him up."
The blond drifter came into view and Vin forgot about Josh's accusation as he was dragged roughly to his feet; he was too busy trying to ride out the waves of pain that threatened to engulf him. He struggled to hold on to consciousness as they manhandled him onto his horse, tying his hands to the pommel and his feet to the stirrups. He knew he needed to be alert, to take note of his surroundings and the route they were taking in case he saw an opportunity to escape. But as soon as they moved off, every step his horse took sent tendrils of agony shooting through his shoulder and his world narrowed to a circle of red haze in which there was no thought beyond simple survival.
+ + + + + + +
Vin drifted in and out of consciousness during the journey, and when they finally stopped, it took him a few moments to register that his horse was no longer moving. He lifted his head and fought back a wave of dizziness as he took in his surroundings. The trees they had been riding through had opened into a wide meadow that sloped down to the river with a rocky outcrop to the west. It was a secluded spot that he knew well he had planned to use it that night with Josh. This was obviously their destination as there was evidence of a camp set up in the shade of a stand of trees.
Vin watched warily as Jake dismounted and approached him. Waiting until Kale was in position with a gun pointed at the captive, he untied Vin's feet from the stirrups and his bound hands from the pommel before pulling the tracker roughly off his horse. Vin had tried to brace himself for the inevitable pain, but still he staggered under its ferocity as his injured shoulder was jarred. Jake let him drop to his knees as his stomach once more rebelled. This time, there was little more than bile to come up and, when the attack was over, he curled up on the ground, weak and breathless, stomach cramping.
Jake allowed him no respite. He was pulled to his feet and half-dragged across to a tree near the campsite. Kale held him upright while Jake tied another rope to the one binding his wrists and swung the longer rope over a branch of the tree. Vin couldn't hold back a scream of agony as his arms were jerked upwards and he screwed his eyes shut tightly as the world around faded in and out. When the disorientation passed a little, he found himself hanging there, arms tied over his head, feet barely touching the ground.
Jake stood before him, arms crossed, with Josh a few steps behind.
"Well, now that our guest is comfortably settled into his new quarters," Jake said, "I think it's time he met the boss. What do you think Josh?"
Josh nodded; his mouth set in a grim line.
"Well, well," said a voice behind him. "This is a pleasant surprise, Mr. Tanner."
Vin felt the blood in his veins run cold at the sound of that voice a voice he had hoped he would never hear again.
It was late afternoon and, although the burning sun had lost a little of its heat, the air was still heavy and stagnant. As he and Casey rode back towards the ranch, JD silently and smugly congratulated himself on a successful afternoon. He had taken Casey to a favorite spot where they had enjoyed a picnic and a pleasant afternoon talking and swimming in the lake. After indulgently allowing Casey to choose most of their conversation topics, he had finally brought the conversation around to the dance and, to his surprise, she had readily agreed to go with him.
Throughout the day, JD's thoughts had frequently turned to Josh and Vin, not without an accompanying pang of envy. However, he had refrained from mentioning their trip to Casey. He had not been oblivious to Casey's displeasure last Sunday when he had indicated that he might prefer to go camping than to take Casey riding and knew that he had to tread carefully..
Now, with a successful afternoon behind him, he felt it was safe to bring up the subject.
"I wonder what kind of day Josh and Vin have had?"
Casey shot him an exasperated look. "Josh again! Haven't we talked about him enough already today?"
JD frowned. He wasn't aware that he'd been talking overmuch about Josh. Sure, he had told Casey a couple of Josh's jokes, and a few stories about Josh's adventures so far on his trip out West. That hardly constituted dominating the conversation! He didn't understand what she had against Josh; she'd seemed to like him well enough when she met him at dinner last week.
"I'd have thought you'd have enjoyed talking about Josh," he said a little sharply. "You were all over him at lunch last Sunday!"
Casey looked at him in obvious surprise. "All over him? I hardly spoke a word to him!"
JD's jaw dropped at this blatant untruth. "That's not so! You wanted to know all about him!"
"So? We don't often get someone new around here, I was interested, that's all." She looked at him thoughtfully for a moment, then laughed and reached across to poke him in the shoulder. "Are you jealous?"
"Ow!" JD rubbed his arm where she'd poked him. "Jealous? Why would I be jealous?"
"Oh, I don't know. Maybe because Josh is a nice boy, and real good-looking "
He could tell she was teasing, but decided to re-assure her anyway. He wasn't ready to get into an argument that would ruin an otherwise perfect day.
"He might be real good-looking," JD said, "but I don't have anything to worry about he told me he's only interested in grown women."
To his surprise, Casey looked as if she might explode. "What am I, then? A cow?"
JD realized his mistake. "That's not what I meant!" he explained hurriedly. "It's just that he told me he had a lady back home an older woman and after her, he isn't interested in in..."
Casey's lips thinned into a tight line as he floundered to a halt.
"I think you're trying to say that he isn't interested in a 'girl' when he can have a 'woman'."
JD felt the conversation slipping further and further out of his control. "He didn't exactly say that anyway, what does it matter what Josh thinks?"
"Would you rather a real woman than a mere girl, JD?"
"No! Of course not! Not that I think of you as just a girl... Well, you are a girl, but "
Casey shot him a furious look. "Maybe you'd better find yourself a real woman to take to the dance, JD Dunne!"
Casey spurred her horse into a gallop and JD was left coughing dust, his head reeling. He snorted to himself in disgust. Women! What chance did a man have of ever understanding one? He debated telling Buck about the conversation and getting his advice, but decided against it. Buck would likely laugh until he cried and tell him to go out and buy Casey some chocolates. JD had learnt a long time ago that chocolates didn't work with Casey.
He trotted after her, hoping that her parting shot about the dance had been nothing more than a comment made in the heat of the moment, trying to rehearse in his mind what he needed to say to placate her again.
"Reckon the pleasure' all yers," Vin replied as the woman came forward into his line of vision.
Her hair was blonde rather than brown, but it was her all right; her features were burned into his memory and they wore the same expression of triumph as they did in his nightmares.
Ella Gaines smiled sweetly. "Why, it's been a long time, Vin. Aren't you pleased to see me?"
Vin glared at her, not bothering to reply, and cursed silently as he realized how easily he'd allowed himself to be led into a trap. He'd gotten too complacent; life had been going too well. He should have known that disaster was around the corner, but there had been no reason to suspect Josh. Just where did the boy fit into this? He glanced at Josh who was standing at Ella's shoulder, then back at the blonde.
"What kinda lies have ya told the boy?"
Ella smiled and moved closer. She raised a hand and gently pushed back a strand of hair from his face. Vin felt his flesh crawl at her touch.
"I just told him the truth," she purred. "I told him how you murdered my family and raped me, destroying my life."
"Figures. Ya got a real talent fer lyin' Ella. What ya did ta Chris..."
Ella's expression changed instantly to one of fury. "I have never lied to Chris!"
Vin saw the look of consternation on Josh's face as the boy asked, "Belle? What are you talking about Chris Larabee? I don't understand "
Ella immediately turned to Josh, putting a hand on his arm, and Vin was sickened by the change that came over her. Her voice was sweet, her expression loving.
"Honey, this man is a liar and a murderer. I told you what would happen, how he'd try to twist the truth. Josh, I don't want you to hear all this I don't want our pure relationship tainted by the hurts in my past. Why don't you go and help Joe with supper?"
"I'm not leaving you alone with him, after what he did!" Josh stated firmly, and Vin almost recoiled at the hatred shining out of his eyes.
"I'll be fine, darling," Ella cajoled. "He can't hurt me now. Please, just do this for me."
Josh capitulated, as Vin knew he would. The boy was clearly besotted with Ella.
"Well all right, if that's what you want. But you call me if you need me."
"Of course I will, darling."
Josh turned to leave and Vin said quickly, "She's lyin'! She had Chris's family "
Jake stepped forward and backhanded him hard across the face, effectively cutting off his desperate words. His head snapped back and he tasted blood, but he had the satisfaction of seeing a look of confusion cross Josh's face. Ella waved the boy on and, after a moment, he turned and continued on his way.
Ella waited until he was out of earshot, then turned back to Vin.
"You can forget about Josh finding out the truth he won't believe you. The dear boy is too much in love with me to listen."
"Why'd ya need to involve him in this? He's just a kid."
"Don't let him hear you say that. He thinks he's my hope and my future. Why involve him? Haven't you worked it out? I needed to be sure no one would miss you for a couple of days. When are they expecting you back? Tomorrow night? And if you don't come back, no one will worry until the next morning: they'll think you two are just having a good time. Which leaves you and I plenty of time to spend together."
She smiled, and Vin felt a chill run through him. She had everything worked out it would be too late by the time anyone came looking.
"Well, it's been a while," Ella went on conversationally, "so why don't we catch up on some news? Tell me, how is my Chris?"
"He ain't your Chris and he's doin' just fine, now that he's away from you."
Ella shook her head. "You just don't understand, do you? Chris and I are meant to be together, we always have been. I'll grant you we've had a few setbacks what lovers haven't? Sarah got in the way for a while and I had to wait three long, lonely years after her death for the chance to be with him again."
Vin watched her as she spoke, growing more and more animated, her eyes shining with the light of fanaticism. He'd seen that look before and it trod a thin line between sanity and madness.
"He thought he loved her," Ella went on, "but he was couldn't have, not really - how could he have loved her when his heart belongs to me? But I had to wait until he'd forgotten her, and until I had something to offer him. It was fate that I married Joseph Gaines and inherited his fortune after his unfortunate death."
"You killed your husband?" He had never considered this possibility.
Ella tapped him on the cheek. "I think I've heard enough from you, Vin, so keep your mouth shut while I'm talking. Let's just say Joseph met with an unfortunate accident. Once I had the ranch to myself, there was nothing to stop me getting Chris back. And it worked he fell in love with me all over again."
"You tricked him!" Vin growled.
"I told you to keep your mouth shut." Ella nodded to Jake who moved in and abruptly rammed the butt of his gun into the injured shoulder. Vin gave a strangled gasp of agony as the wound re-opened.
"Where was I?" Her face hardened. "Oh, yes. I had Chris back he was going to leave Four Corners and come and live with me. All my dreams were coming true until you decided to interfere."
"He didn't need me," Vin gasped. "He'd have worked it out himself sooner or later."
Ella nodded at Jake and once more the gun butt ground into the wound. Vin's vision blurred as waves of pain assaulted him, and he felt fresh blood soaking into his shirt.
Ella moved in closer.
"You are a thorn in my flesh, Mr. Tanner. You've deceived Chris and won his trust and you've poisoned him against me. But I'm going to get him back, one way or another, and it will be easier when you're out of my way. You see, unless a thorn is removed it causes infection, and can even lead to death. I can't allow that."
"You must be outta yer mind if you think he's gonna come back to you, after what you've done."
As he spoke the words, Vin braced himself for another blow, but none came. Instead, Ella seemed to be considering his words.
"Oh, he'll come back. When I've taken away everyone he cares about, he'll come back. I'll start with you and I'll kill all of his friends one by one. Eventually, he'll realize that he doesn't need anyone but me."
Vin looked into her eyes and realized that she had passed the point of reason. Her whole life was caught up in desire for Chris and this drove her every thought. She truly believed that he would come back to her if she put her plan into action. He felt a shiver of fear run through him. If she killed him now, there would be no one to warm the others she would kill them all and then go after Chris.
Misreading his reaction, Ella said, "You're right to be afraid, Vin. I am going to kill you eventually. But you need to be punished first. Your actions have caused me months of pain that needs to be re-paid."
She moved closer, reaching out to touch the blood on his shirt.
"We won't be having any fun together tomorrow if you don't make it through the night, and that bullet wound seems to be bleeding rather badly. Jake, could you do something about that?"
Jake grinned. "Be pleased to, ma'am. Kale!"
Kale stepped forward and Jake spoke to him quietly. Kale nodded, shot a sadistic grin in Vin's direction and headed towards the camp. Vin had a pretty good idea of what was about to happen and tried to steel himself. He didn't want to give Ella the satisfaction of hearing him scream. But when Kale returned with a knife glowing red-hot from the fire, it was all he could not to cry out there and then. He watched Jake take the knife and his whole body tensed as he felt the heat getting closer. He saw Ella smile, a cruel smile full of anticipation, and then the knife touched his skin and his vision dissolved in a red film of agony and somewhere in the distance he heard someone screaming.
Josh Kelly sat on a boulder beside the river, staring sightlessly out across the water. This wasn't going as planned and he just couldn't understand it. Every time he closed his eyes, his mind was filled with images of Vin Tanner, laughing at something Josh had said, patiently showing him how to distinguish one track from another. Then the images would be replaced by a vision of the tracker, bloody and battered, hanging from the tree.
Josh had met Belle in Silver City two months ago. He had little experience with women and was amazed and flattered when she began to pay attention to him. He couldn't believe his luck; he, an ordinary farm boy had attracted a beautiful, strong, intelligent woman. She told him that he was the man she had been waiting for all her life and finally she took him to her bed.
One night, he woke to find her crying and held her in his arms to comfort her. She reluctantly confided in him about the tragedy in her life, told him about the bounty hunter who had come looking for an outlaw in her home and left after murdering her husband and son and repeatedly raping her. She told him that for the past five years all her money and energy had gone into hunting this man and that she wouldn't be able to leave the past behind until she had found him and brought him to justice.
Josh was horrified at her story and promised to help her find the murderer. She had already discovered that the man had a bounty on his head for a murder in Texas. Shortly after this, she received some information that he was in hiding in a small Southwestern town called Four Corners. The plan to capture him had been Ella's. Josh wasn't too comfortable with the idea of ingratiating himself with the townsfolk under false pretences, but Ella convinced him that it was the only way to safely ensure the man's capture and he reluctantly agreed to carry out the plan. He was totally in love with her and knew that the only way to secure their future together was to help bring this man to justice.
The plan worked like a dream. Belle had been thorough in her research and found out all she could about the seven men who ran the law in Four Corners. What better place for a wanted man to hide than under the banner of the law? Initially, Josh was afraid that he would find his part difficult to play, but most of what he told his new friends was the truth. The peacekeepers took him at his word and hadn't asked any awkward questions, as was the way of the West.
For the first few days, he congratulated himself on his deception but as time went by, he became more and more uncomfortable with the lies. He felt he'd found a real friend in JD, and the other peacekeepers were all good men in their own ways. He'd tried to avoid those who seemed most likely to ask questions or doubt his story.
The more time he spent with Vin Tanner, the more uncomfortable he became. Try as he might, he could not equate this man with the picture Belle painted. Not once did he see Vin do anything that might give an indication of a vicious nature. As Belle was adamant that Vin was the man who had raped her, he had come to the conclusion that the sharpshooter must be an even better actor than Josh himself was turning out to be. Still, he had been glad when he was told to put their plan into action because he feared that if he stayed much longer he'd no longer have the stomach for what had to be done.
The day on the trail with Vin was the most difficult. The Texan went out of his way to help Josh and teach him the things he thought his young friend wanted to learn and Josh began to doubt his course of action once more. When Vin talked to him about his mother he had almost lost his nerve and told the tracker everything. Almost. An image of Belle crying and begging for his help was the only thing that had forced him to keep his resolve.
Josh thought he'd be relieved to see Tanner captured, but as he watched the brutal treatment Jake meted out, he found himself flinching time and again. Vin's consternation at his accusations kept creeping into his thoughts. How could a man as badly injured as Vin keep up such a charade?
Then there was Belle's behavior. She told him that what she wanted was justice; her intention was to find the man who had murdered her family and bring him to trial for his crimes. But what he had just seen disturbed him. As soon as she set eyes on Vin, she became a different person cold, hard and vengeful. Oh, she made a show of reassuring him when she sent him off, but he could see in her eyes that she had no time for him she simply wanted to get him out of the way. And why did Vin call her 'Ella'? And what did Chris Larabee have to do with any of this?
Josh had obeyed her wishes and walked out of sight, but not far enough to be out of earshot of the captive's cries of pain. He watched Kale walk back to the fire, saw the glowing knife in his hand when he returned and realized with horror what was about to happen. He tried to close his eyes to Vin's screams as the burning blade cauterized the wound, telling himself that it had to be done to stop the bleeding. But he could not ignore what he was beginning to believe to be the truth that Belle was enjoying her captive's suffering.
Absently, he threw a few stones into the water, wondering what to do next. Josh had learned from his uncle a sense of fairness and justice. He had been told to listen to both sides of a story before deciding what was true. For the first time, he began to doubt Belle's story and realized that there was only one way to settle things in his mind. He needed to talk to her.
He stood up and began to make his way back to camp. As he got closer, he heard voices and spotted Belle and Jake engaged in conversation. Quickly, before he could change his mind, he crept closer until he could hear what they were saying.
"You sure you don't want to take him back to Texas, collect the bounty money?"
Belle shook her head impatiently. "Don't worry about the money. I told you I'd pay you more than the bounty's worth; just make sure the others don't hear about it."
Jake shrugged. "Fine, if that's what you want."
"When I think he's been punished enough, we'll kill him and leave his body for Chris to find. We'll be long gone before anyone comes looking."
"What about the kid?"
Josh moved a little closer to make sure he heard Belle's next words.
"What about him?"
"Come on Ella, any fool can see he's got his doubts about your story."
"Let me worry about Josh. He's in love with me; he believes everything I tell him. It doesn't matter anyway; we don't need him anymore. Even if he was suspicious, he wouldn't have the guts to do anything. He's just a kid."
Josh felt his heart snap in two at the words. Just a kid! A gutless kid. There was no way he could read her words any other way. She'd used him and, like the stupid fool he was, he'd fallen for her lies hook, line and sinker. How could he have been so naïve?
As Jake and Belle moved away, Josh stayed in his hiding place, heart beating furiously, tears pricking his eyes. His whole world was crumbling around him and he thought he might die from the pain of Belle's betrayal. Ella, that was her name. So what Vin had tried to tell him was true Vin was innocent of any crime. Something else was going on here. For some reason, Ella wanted Vin to suffer and Josh had played right into her hands.
He tried to clear his mind. He had betrayed Vin; now he had to do something to get him out of this mess. He considered his options. Apart from Ella and Jake, there were three other men to contend with and he knew that they were all good at their jobs. He could wait until nightfall and then try to untie Vin. No, that wouldn't work. The tree was too near the camp and one of them would be on guard; he would never get away with it. Josh knew his limitations there was no way he could take on the whole gang and hope to get out of this alive, and he would be no good to Vin dead.
There was only one possible option. He was due to take the midnight to dawn guard duty at the pass. Once there, he could leave without anyone seeing and ride to Four Corners for help. In the meantime, all he had to do was convince Ella that he was still under her spell,
Steeling himself for a few more hours of play acting, he headed back to camp.
Ezra Standish couldn't hold back a self-satisfied smirk as he gathered in the considerable number of bank notes from the center of the table.
The hour was late and there were very few patrons left in the Standish Tavern. His fellow peacekeepers had left the saloon and he had been playing alone with the stranger from Silver City for the past hour. He was smugly pleased at the way he'd outplayed his opponent. The man had obviously pegged Ezra as a two-bit amateur and Ezra had obligingly played down to that misconception, improving his play so subtly that the other man had not even noticed the trap until it was too late. A masterly performance, if he said so himself. His mother would be proud.
His opponent, a semi-professional gambler by the name of Arnie Banks, was regarding him with a mixture of admiration and frustration.
"I believe, Mr. Standish, that you've been holding out on me."
Ezra affected an air of innocence. "Simple luck, my good man, simple luck."
Banks smiled. "You can drop the act now, Standish."
"Where did you learn to play like that?"
Ezra grinned. "Would you believe me if I told you my mother began teaching me while I was still a babe in arms?"
"Far-fetched enough to be true." Banks leaned forward, resting his elbows on the table. "Now that we fully appreciate each other's measure, are you going to allow me to attempt to win back some of my money?"
Ezra cocked his head, considering. "Another thing my dear mother taught me - always quit when you're ahead." He paused. He really should take his own advice, but he had enjoyed the game. Banks was a professional card player who relied on skill rather than a loaded deck and he was a pleasant and educated conversationalist. Ezra had greatly appreciated the hour they had spent together; it had been a long time since he had had such a skilled opponent against whom to pit his wits. He made a decision. "But in your case, I may make an exception."
"Splendid!" Banks sat back, beaming. "There is one small difficulty, however. You seem to have cleared me out of all my ready cash."
"That may indeed pose a difficulty," Ezra responded. "Perhaps you have some item of worth to put into the pot? That watch, for instance?"
The gambler shook his head, his hand moving protectively to the attractive, intricately designed timepiece.
"The watch has sentimental value. What would you say to some photographs taken back in Silver City? You'd be amazed how many people out West have never seen one."
"Photographs of what?" Ezra asked, doubtful that this would prove to be of much value to him.
The gambler fished in his jacket and came out with a dozen photographs.
"Landscapes mostly. Take a look for yourself."
Ezra took the bundle and flicked through them quickly. Sure enough, most of them were of plains and mountains, except for the final one taken in a saloon. He was about to hand them back when something in the picture caught his eye and he took a better look. The photograph was of Banks, sitting at a table, a glass of beer raised in salute, smiling broadly for the camera. What had caught Ezra's attention, however, was a group of people seated at a table in the background. They were engaged in a game of cards and were obviously unaware that they had been included in the picture. He studied the group closely and his mouth went dry.
"Banks, this woman on the left who is she?"
Best took the photo back, obviously surprised at the urgency in Ezra's voice. The gambler waited anxiously as Best studied the beautiful blonde woman.
"That's Belle Grainger," he said immediately. "Met her in Silver City. She's quite a woman and a mean card player."
Ezra felt his heart begin to pump faster. "And the young man next to her?"
"Josh something-or-other. Those two were an item, though why a woman like Belle would take up with a boy ten years her junior escapes me."
"The men next to them?"
Banks shrugged. "No idea. What's your interest?"
"Nothing," Ezra said quickly. "I just thought I might have seen this woman before."
Banks laughed. "Quite likely. I got the feeling she's been around. Bit of a femme fatale, if you ask me. Had men buzzing around her like flies."
"When was this taken?"
"About a month ago."
"I'd like to keep it."
Banks regarded him quizzically. "Well, you can win it from me fair and square in the next game."
"I'm sorry," Ezra said, "but the game's off. I've just remembered an urgent appointment. If you'll just tell me how much you want for the photograph "
Banks sat back, folding his arms. "Well, if you're so all-fired anxious to have it, I guess I could let it go for $20."
$20 for a photograph! Ezra was aware that he was playing this all wrong. He should have feigned only a passing interest in the photograph and chosen his moment later to casually offer to buy it. But his mind was already racing toward alarming conclusions based on what he had seen and the hollow feeling in his gut told him that time was of the essence. Still, his nature couldn't allow him to pay such an exorbitant amount without some token haggling.
"I'll give you $5."
$10," Ezra shot back firmly, pushing the bills across the table and holding out his hand for the photograph. Banks allowed him to take it.
"You going to tell me what's so all-fired important about this photograph?" Banks asked, his curiosity obviously piqued.
Ezra pushed his chair back and stood up, hastily gathering his remaining winnings and stuffing the notes into his jacket pocket. "Too complicated to explain." He rammed his hat onto his head and nodded to Banks. "Until next time."
He hurried out of the saloon. Glancing at his watch he realized that it was later than he'd thought. He had to find Chris Larabee, and he had to find him now.
They finally left him alone, and Vin watched as they gathered around the campfire to eat. He hadn't eaten for many hours, but the aroma of food merely increased his nausea. He was thirsty, though, his mouth so dry he could barely swallow. His tongue felt swollen, filling his mouth. Shooting pains in his arms had joined the constant throbbing in his shoulder and sweat trickling down his face made the cuts to his mouth and cheek burn.
His head was pounding and putting two coherent thoughts together seemed to be beyond him. Concentrating for more than a moment at a time seemed to increase the beat of the hammers beating away in his skull. Not that there was much to think about there was no possible way out of this desperate situation. Even if he had the strength to fight back when they eventually cut him down, he knew he would be no match for four armed men.
His only chance lay with Josh Kelly. He had seen the uncertainty in the boy's eyes at Ella's obvious enjoyment of her captive's suffering. If Josh began to question her intentions and the truth of her story, there may be a slim chance he would take some kind of action.
Vin wasn't afraid to die, but he couldn't deny the stab of fear as he thought about the next morning and what Ella might have in store for him. She had obviously passed the point of reason and was all the more unpredictable and dangerous for it. But by far his greatest fear was for his friends and for Chris Larabee.
If Ella was telling the truth, and there was no reason to doubt her, she planned to kill each of the peacekeepers one by one. Ordinarily, he would assume that the boys could take care of themselves; they had been watching each other's backs for over two years now and there were few men in this territory who would be stupid enough to try to take one of them out. Few men, maybe and that left Ella Gaines. She had gone to great lengths in using Josh to separate Vin from the others and her plan had worked perfectly. He was sure she would have an equally well thought out plan for each of his friends.
Impotent rage filled him and he began to pull desperately against the ropes binding his hands to the branch above, but succeeded only in tightening his bonds and sending fresh waves of pain through his arms. He stopped struggling, panting with exertion, sweat pouring down his face. He had to face the truth: he was helpless; he couldn't save himself and he couldn't save his friends.
He felt tears of sheer despair burn his eyes as he thought about the future. Ella would kill them all, and then make her move on Chris. And when she did, the gunfighter would realize what she had done. He would blame himself and nothing would be able to save him from the darkness.
Vin wasn't sure how long he hung there, lost in a world of desolation. It was dusk now and would soon be fully dark, but when he saw movement out of the corner of his eye there was still enough light to see Ella as she stood up from her place at the fire and walked towards him.
She stood in silence for a moment, taking in his battered appearance, and what she saw seemed to please her. He could see that she was holding a thin rope and while she stared at him her hands were working, fashioning the rope into a crude hangman's noose.
She leaned in close, one hand grasping his hair and pulling his head back, while she put her lips to his ear.
"I know your nasty little secret, Vin," she whispered. He recoiled in disgust as he felt her licking his earlobe before her teeth fastened around the soft skin. She bit down hard and he jerked his head away from the sharp pain. Ella laughed and moved back.
"Does Chris know about the bounty on your head? I bet that he does, and you've spun him some tale about your innocence. You really do seem to be his failing, Vin. He can't see through you the way I can."
Vin didn't bother to reply. She wasn't looking for an answer anyway; it was obvious that she'd come just to taunt him.
Ella dangled the loop of rope in front of his face.
"Are you afraid of hanging, Vin? Do you dream about the rope tightening around your neck, of those final moments when you feel life slipping away? I hope so, because that's how I plan to finish your miserable life."
She reached up and looped the rope around his neck. Panicking now, he tried to jerk away, to kick out at her, but he was too weak to put any force behind the blows and she deftly avoided him. Ella said no more, but simply began to tighten the noose slowly. Vin tried to keep calm, telling himself that she was just playing with him, that she wasn't ready to kill him just yet. Then a flashback to the time Chanu had choked him unconscious in the jailhouse re-awakened the terror he had felt then. The rope began to tighten around his throat and he found himself unable to breathe. His vision was beginning to blur into darkness when the rope was loosened. He sucked breath quickly into his lungs, feeling his body shaking with shock.
"Did you enjoy that?" Ella asked. "I did. I enjoyed the fear on your face when you found you couldn't breathe. I'm going to leave you alone now, Vin. You can spend your remaining few hours thinking about all the things you haven't yet achieved in your pathetic life all the things you'll never do now because you're going to die soon. Most of all, I want you to think about your friends. Tomorrow they're going to start wondering where you are, start worrying. Think about all Chris is going to go through in the next few days, especially when he gets my telegram to tell him you're in trouble. Think about the way he'll feel when he finally finds your broken body and imagines all you went through. Think about those things Vin, and in the morning in the morning we'll have a little more fun together before I kill you."
She pulled the rope around his throat again tight enough to be uncomfortable but not enough to cut off his air supply. She stroked his cheek softly and leaned in to whisper in his ear. "See you at your hanging, Vin."
Vin watched her go, fighting back the despair welling in his heart, shying away from thoughts of the long night ahead and the fate that awaited him when the sun rose in the sky once more.
Mary's voice penetrated Larabee's thoughts and he came back to earth with a jolt.
Maybe a late dinner at the hotel with Mary hadn't been such a good idea after all. He'd found it difficult to concentrate throughout the meal, unable to shake a feeling of unease. He kept telling himself that there was no rational reason for it. Last night he had been concerned about the two drifters, but he had satisfied himself that they had left, heading south, bearing out what they'd told Josh. It seemed that they were just what they said drifters on their way to Mexico. There was no reason for this feeling. Maybe it was nothing more than the weather. Even at this late hour, it was still unreasonably hot. He could feel his shirt clinging to him damply and his forehead was beaded with sweat. Mary, on the other hand, looked as cool, calm and beautiful as ever. Even the look of exasperation on her face was attractive.
"Chris, you were miles away," she said, when she saw she had his attention. "Do you have something on your mind?"
He smiled at her reassuringly. "I'm sorry. I'm fine. It's nothing."
"Are you worried about Vin?"
"No need. Vin can take care of himself."
Mary smiled. "That wasn't what I asked."
"Well," Mary continued, "Now I have your attention again, there's something I want to talk to you about."
"Oh?" Chris felt his smile fading. He just knew that this would be about that wretched dance. He'd managed to keep it out of the conversation so far.
"We need to talk about Vin."
"Vin?" Not what he'd expected her to say.
"Vin and Inez."
Chris felt his eyebrows shoot up. "Vin and Inez?"
Now Mary was looking impatient. "There's no reason to repeat everything I say! Yes, Vin and Inez. Now Chris, you know as well as I do that those two are made for each other, but Vin is holding back."
"I really think it's Vin's business, Mary," Chris attempted feebly, but she ignored him and swept on.
"You need to talk to him about it. It's ridiculous. The whole town can see that he's sweet on Inez and has been for months. It's time you did something about it."
"Time I did something?" He knew he was repeating her words again, but he couldn't seem to help it.
"Well, you are his best friend, it's your place to do it."
"Right then, that's settled. You'll talk to him as soon as he gets back from this trip."
"I didn't say " Chris was beginning to protest, when he spotted Ezra hurrying over to his table.
"Mrs. Travis, Mr. Larabee. My apologies for the interruption, but I need to speak with you urgently."
"Can't it wait?" Mary said.
"Sure, Ezra, pull up a seat," Chris said, ignoring the annoyed look Mary threw at him. He was glad of the diversion, though Ezra seemed uncharacteristically agitated and remained standing. Chris felt a chill of apprehension course through him when the gambler spoke.
"I believe Mr. Tanner may be in considerable danger."
Chris exchanged a quick glance with Mary. "Sit, Ezra. What's this about?"
Ezra sat down and took something out of his pocket, pushing it across the table. "Take a look at this photograph the woman seated at the table in the background."
Chris took the photograph curiously, flashing Ezra a confused glance. One look at the picture and he felt his stomach sink. Although the woman had blonde hair piled high on her head and her features were a little blurred, he recognized her immediately. Ella Gaines. His shock must have shown on his face, for he felt Mary's hand on his own and vaguely heard her concerned query.
He passed her the photo, his eyes locked on Ezra's. "When was this taken? Where did you get it?"
"I bought it from a gambler in the saloon. He said it was taken a month ago in Silver City."
Mary gasped as she too recognized the woman. Then she frowned. "Next to Ella," she said. "It's hard to make out, but isn't that Josh?"
Ezra nodded. "I believe it is."
"I don't understand " Mary turned to Chris helplessly.
He had no better idea than she did, but he was beginning to get a very bad feeling. Josh turning up in town a month after being seen with Ella Gaines it couldn't be a coincidence.
He could see that Ezra was aware of his thought pattern and that the gambler himself had already reached the same conclusion. His next words confirmed Chris's suspicions.
"The two men next to Josh? It is impossible to be certain, but I think they are the drifters who were in the saloon last night." Ezra said.
Chris took the photograph back and studied it more carefully. He had been so shocked to see Ella that he hadn't even looked at the people with her. Ezra could be right.
"And you saw Josh talking to them " he said slowly.
Ezra nodded. "If we had only paid more heed to Mr. Tanner's instincts at the time "
"What does this all mean?" Mary asked.
"I do not believe that there is an innocent explanation, Mrs. Travis," Ezra said quietly. "I find it difficult to imagine that Josh's association with Mrs. Gaines can be anything other than a conspiracy."
"To do what?"
"For Ella to get revenge on those who got in the way of her plans," Chris said grimly and with absolute certainty. "Josh came here for Vin. This trip is a setup he's leading Vin into a trap." He felt his throat constrict in fear.
"I agree." Ezra said.
Chris pushed his chair back. "Let's go, Ezra. We're goin' after them."
"But, Chris, you don't know where they were headed " Mary said.
"We know they were headed for the foothills. If I was planning an ambush, I'd wait until then, do it where there's plenty of cover. If we start riding now, we can pick up their trail come dawn "
"It's a risk, Chris," Ezra argued. "There are other places they could choose, and we will not be able to follow their tracks in the dark."
"Maybe," Chris acknowledged. "But if we wait 'til dawn it may be too late either way." He refused to voice the unspoken possibility that hung between them that Vin was already dead. Resolutely, be pushed the thought away.
She put a hand on his arm, her eyes full of emotion. "Go, Chris. Be careful."
He nodded. "Ezra, find Nathan and Josiah. I'll get Buck and JD and meet you at the livery. Be ready to ride in fifteen minutes."
"Ezra nodded, tipped his hat to Mary, and turned to go.
"Tell Nathan tell him to bring all the medical supplies he can. Just just in case."
He caught a flicker of emotion in Ezra's green eyes before the gambler acknowledged the instruction and strode out of the hotel.
A ten-minute ride down through a narrow gully brought Josh to the rocky outcrop the gang was using as a lookout point. The position was well chosen, the elevated eyrie opening to a panoramic view of the trail to the south and west. He dismounted, tethered his horse next to the black waiting patiently for its rider, and climbed up to the lookout, calling out his name loudly to announce his arrival.
Pedro Martinez stood up, stretching, as Josh approached.
"About time, compadre. My bedroll is calling me."
Pedro shook his head. "No trouble. Nothing has moved; nothing larger than a coyote. This watch is a waste of time. Nobody is coming."
"Maybe. But we don't want to take any chances."
"Well, it is all yours. Joe will be up to relieve you at dawn."
Josh took Pedro's place on a flat rock, resting his back against the cliff. He was fairly sure that none of the gang suspected his plan. He had steeled himself to speak to Ella; much as he wanted to keep his distance, he knew that it would have looked strange had he seemed to be avoiding her. He even boldly asked her why Vin had called her by a different name, and pretended to believe her explanation that the sharpshooter had been lying to try and confuse him. She assured him that all was going according to plan and that the following day they would be taking the prisoner back to Texas to be tried formally for his crimes. When she claimed that she was too tired and upset to share his bed, he had been understanding and kissed her softly goodnight. All the while, his stomach was churning with a mixture of humiliation and anger.
He pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket. He couldn't read the writing in the dark, but he didn't need to; he had agonized over every word on the page. It was a note explaining to Ella that he'd realized he didn't have the stomach for this job after all and was riding back to Silver City to wait for her. In it he begged her forgiveness for his weakness, told her he loved her, and hoped that they could still have a future together. His hand had been shaking as he'd written the words, but he needed an explanation for his absence when the next man came on watch. After a moment of indecision, he placed the note in prominent view on the rock and weighed it down with a heavy stone.
He heard Pedro mount up and set off up the trail and waited a few moments until he was sure the man was out of earshot. Then he made his way quickly down from the lookout point and mounted his horse. He figured it would take him three or four hours to reach Four Corners. By the time he returned with the remaining peacekeepers, it would be well past dawn. Refusing to think about the kind of punishment Ella had planned for her captive, he instead held on firmly to the hope that Ella's desire to see Vin suffer would give him the time he needed.
Josh rode as fast as he dared down the narrow, winding trail through the rocky terrain. More than once he thanked his good luck that there was a full moon and, once he had reached level ground, he could see the trail ahead quite easily and was able to pick up speed. He had been riding for several hours when he saw riders approaching. Six riders. It could be a coincidence, or
He reined in his horse and waited. The riders closed the distance between them quickly and as they approached, he saw the leader turn and shout something to the men behind. Immediately they circled out, weapons drawn and he found himself surrounded. The leader reined his horse in a few feet away and dismounted. He was dressed all in black, his face set in a hard mask. Chris Larabee.
For the first time since he had decided to ride for help, Josh feared for his own safety. He wasn't sure how it could be, but it was immediately clear to him that Larabee knew that Josh had betrayed his friend. It was evident in his grim expression and the stiff way he held himself, as if he was struggling to hold back his emotions. Josh put his hands up slowly to show that he wasn't carrying a weapon.
"Mr. Larabee, I " he began, but his words were cut off in a yelp as Larabee reached up, grabbed his leg and hauled him off his horse with a savagery that Josh knew was deserved. He landed awkwardly and stumbled, but before he had time to orient himself, he found himself flat on his back, Larabee's knee digging painfully into his chest. The muzzle of a gun pressed uncomfortably into his neck.
The words were uttered in a menacing growl and Josh found his heart thumping wildly and his mouth dry as he looked up into the gunfighter's accusing eyes. For the first time, he fully understood how Larabee had gained his reputation. The green eyes were narrowed, and his lips set in a thin line. His whole demeanor exuded a deadly menace.
The knee in his chest made it hard to breathe, but he choked the words out, hearing his voice as a high-pitched squeak.
"They have him in a camp in the foothills. It's my fault..."
"Ella Gaines?" Chris spat the words at him.
The name sent a wave of shock through him. "Ella. That's what Vin called her. I know her as Belle I made a terrible mistake..."
"Yes, you did," Larabee growled, pressing his gun pressed harder into Josh's neck. Josh gagged: the muzzle was digging into his windpipe making it hard to breathe.
"I can take you to him," he gasped.
"How do I know he's still alive, that you're not leading us into the same trap?"
Through blurring vision Josh saw both Josiah and Buck dismount and step forward, but it was Buck who spoke the quiet words.
"Let him up, Chris. Sounds like he wants to tell us what he knows. This ain't helping Vin."
Larabee held Josh's gaze a few moments longer, then nodded abruptly, holstered his gun and stood up in one lithe movement. He stepped back a few paces. "Get up."
Josh pushed himself slowly to his feet, acutely aware of at least four guns trained on him as he did so. He looked up at the arc of horses surrounding him and the three men still mounted, caught JD's hard gaze and looked away again.
"Start talking, kid."
The words were Josiah's and as Josh looked up he found no sympathy in the ex-preacher's steely gaze. Quickly he explained how he'd led Vin into the ambush, cringing as Larabee's face darkened when he talked about the bullet wound and Ella's subsequent brutal treatment of the tracker.
"He was still alive when I left," he finished, "but we don't have much time. Belle she wanted to hurt him, said she was going to punish him I don't know why, I don't understand what's going on. She lied to me I'm so sorry, I didn't "
"I don't have time for your excuses," Larabee interrupted, his tone harsh. "You lead us to the right place and if you make so much as one move that makes me doubt you, I'll kill you there and then, understand?"
"Yes. I understand."
Ella Gaines was finding it hard to sleep. That wasn't strictly true, she mused as she sat beside the campfire, idly poking at the dying embers. To be honest and she always tried to be honest with herself -- she didn't really want to sleep. Sleep would only rob her of the delicious pleasure of watching Tanner suffer as he hung from that tree. His earlier stubbornness had amused her as he had forced himself to stand defiantly erect, fighting the onslaught of pain and exhaustion. She watched him constantly as the night wore on and the long hours of darkness began to take their toll. She had to admit that she had been surprised at how long it had taken before he had surrendered to unconsciousness, his body slumping and his head falling forward onto his chest. She was glad that he had remained conscious for so long, to know the mental agony of the inevitability of not only his own death, but also the deaths of all his friends.
He hung there now, like a broken doll, held upright only by the rope securing his wrists to the branch above his head. Witnessing his suffering filled her with a pleasure that was almost sexual.
She felt her stomach knot with anticipation as so many months of planning finally came to fruition.
Tanner's death would be the first decisive step in her plan to regain Chris's love. The fact that it also gave her revenge on the man who had ruined her life was simply an added bonus. She was already planning where she would leave the body in a shallow grave covered with stones so that the coyotes and vultures wouldn't have the chance to pick his bones clean before Chris found him. It upset her to have to put Chris through the pain of finding his best friend's body. She had contemplated simply allowing Jake to take the body back to Tascosa for the reward, but finally decided that it was only fair for Chris to suffer a little. After all, he had believed Tanner's word over hers, refusing to allow her time to explain, and she couldn't let that go without some kind of punishment.
Ella turned the plan over in her mind for the hundredth time and, as always, congratulated herself on a foolproof scheme. With the six peacekeepers and Mary Travis gone, there would be no one in Chris's life to deceive him and feed him lies about her. It was inevitable that he would turn to her for solace. She would be there for him, as she always had been, only this time there would be no one to interfere.
She had decided that Buck Wilmington would be the next to suffer her retribution. She had always hated Buck; even in those long-ago days when she and Chris had been together, Buck was hanging around, spoiling things and causing trouble. She had always thought that he'd been instrumental in persuading Chris to leave her back then, and she'd never forgiven him for it.
So many lies, so much deception. It wasn't fair that everyone in Chris's life had deceived him; everyone except her. Take that bitch, Sarah. Ella felt her anger rising as she thought about the woman who had somehow forced Chris into marriage and stolen eight years of his life. Sarah had paid for her mistake, though, hadn't she? Ella smiled smugly to herself as she remembered how cleverly she'd disposed of her rival and the brat. Oh, it had taken a long time once she'd found Chris again and discovered that he was married, there had been a lot of planning to do before she was finally rid of Sarah. Then, she'd had to wait patiently until she felt Chris had gotten over with his grief. Grief! He didn't know what the word meant; his pitiful distress over his family's death was nothing compared to the emptiness in her own heart all those years she'd been forced to exist without him.
She glanced to the east, where the sky was beginning to lighten with the promise of a new day, and licked her lips in anticipation. It was not just a new day it was the day. The day when Vin Tanner would finally pay for his sins against her and set in motion a chain of events that would not be stopped until Chris was safely in her arms once more.
Ella's whole body tingled with anticipation as Jake threw a canteen of water over the captive's bowed head. Vin's body jerked in reaction to his abrupt return to consciousness, eliciting a groan of pain. He raised his head, eyes opening gradually as he struggled to focus. She observed his pallid, pain-lined face with satisfaction. The long night had taken its toll, as she had known it would.
She waited until she saw confusion transform into comprehension before she spoke. "I trust you spent a comfortable night?"
Vin was silent, but the look he shot her still held a spark of defiance. Well, she would soon knock that out of him.
She turned to Jake. "Time to start the punishment. Cut him down."
Jake grinned at her instruction, apparently looking forward to this almost as much as she was. Jake Cullen was a ruthless man who enjoyed inflicting pain on others; it was one of the reasons she'd hired him and his gang. He pulled a knife from his belt and quickly cut the rope holding Vin's arms above his head. Tanner staggered, his legs buckling, and Ella stepped quickly out of the way as he collapsed onto his knees.
"Bring him," she instructed.
Jake nodded to Kale who was hovering nearby and, between them they took the prisoner by his bound wrists, dragged him bodily into the open meadow, and let him go. He lay still where they dropped him, breathing heavily.
Ella looked around for Josh, wondering how he would deal with Tanner's coming ordeal. Pedro was standing nearby, ready to participate in the punishment, but there was no sign of the younger man. Ella frowned. "Where's Josh?"
"Ain't back from his watch yet," Jake replied. "Joe went to relieve him."
"He should be back by now," Pedro commented.
Ella was trying to decide whether she should be concerned, when a rider burst into view. Joe dismounted and hurried over, holding out a piece of paper.
"When I got to the look out, Josh was gone. I found this."
Ella snatched the note out of his hand and scanned it quickly. She had been more concerned about Josh than she would admit to Jake. He'd served his purpose well, and she'd been toying with the idea of keeping him with her for a while longer, but his reaction to the events of the previous evening had made her question this. However, when she had talked with him later, she had been reassured that while confused, he still believed in her. This note confirmed her suspicions about him he didn't suspect what was really going on, but equally he didn't have the stomach to witness, never mind take part in, the punishment she had planned for Tanner. It was better this way. She'd decide later what she wanted to do about him.
"What's it say?" Jake asked.
"It's not important. The boy's run out on us."
"And you think that ain't important? What if he betrays us, goes for help?"
Ella shook her head. "He wouldn't do anything to hurt me. He'll have done exactly what he says in the note gone to Silver City. The boy doesn't have the brains for deception."
"You can't be sure " Jake began to argue, but Ella cut him off with a hard glare. He subsided with bad grace, but she knew he wasn't happy. Ella dismissed Josh from her mind. This was her big moment she didn't want to waste a moment worrying about such an insignificance as Josh Kelly.
Ella nodded to Joe. "Get back to the lookout."
She watched idly as Joe mounted his horse, then walked over to her captive.
"There are two ways you can do this, Vin. You can lie there and wait to die, or you can get on your feet and fight like a man. Which is it going to be?"
She watched, almost giddy with anticipation, as Vin dragged himself slowly to his hands and knees and finally onto his feet, until he stood unsteadily, swaying slightly.
"What'd you know about fightin' like a man? Have ya ever done any of yer own dirty work?"
Ella didn't rise to the taunt. She simply said, "That's why I have employees. Speaking of which "
She nodded to Jake, who moved forward. It had begun.
The foothills were looming close as a faint hint of pale yellow light in the eastern sky heralded the approach of dawn. Josh, in the lead, signaled a halt and turned to Chris, riding at his shoulder.
"I'm supposed to be on guard duty until dawn so there shouldn't be anyone at the lookout yet, but I can't be sure I don't think they suspect "
Chris wasn't prepared to take any chances. "Show me where the lookout is," he said tersely.
Josh pointed out the promontory Ella had chosen. Chris nodded. "I know this place. If we skirt around to the west and follow the line of the cliff, there's a trail that will take us in from behind."
They rode west, reaching the cliff just as the sky erupted into a riot of pink and gold one of the most glorious sunrises Chris had seen in a long time. Vin would love this; probably write a poem about it, Chris mused irrelevantly, the thought giving way to a stab of fear. He tore his eyes savagely away from the sunrise. He'd steadfastly refused to even consider the possibility that Vin might already be dead: now wasn't the time to allow negative thoughts to cloud his thinking.
"Buck, come with me," he ordered crisply. "We'll go in quietly, it's likely there's a man on lookout by now. The rest of you, stay here and wait." His eyes rested on Josh for a moment. So far, the information the boy had given them had been reliable, but he wasn't yet ready to fully trust Josh's story. He turned to Josiah. "Keep an eye on the boy just in case he isn't telling us the truth."
Chris and Buck made their way east, following a narrow trail around the foot of the forbidding cliff. Chris knew that the position the gang had chosen for their lookout had a commanding view of the approach to the south and west, but here they were sheltered under an overhang of towering granite and couldn't be seen from above.
Chris led the way to a narrow, steep trail that wound upward towards the tree line and would bring them out behind the lookout. When they were within half a mile of their destination, he brought his horse to a stop, motioning to Buck to dismount.
Moving slowly and quietly so as not to disturb any loose rocks, they began the final scramble towards the guard post. Poking his head cautiously over the summit of the rock face, Chris spotted a man seated near the edge of the cliff, staring out over the plain. Chris motioned Buck around to his left and they moved forward in unison until they were within ten yards of the man. Chris picked up a large stone and threw it carefully. It landed to the man's right and he immediately jumped to his feet. Chris used the sound of his movement to cover his own advance and within seconds the muzzle of his gun rested against the guard's left ear.
"Drop your gun," he hissed.
The startled man did as he was told. Chris kicked the gun out of reach and nodded to Buck.
"Tie him up."
They left the guard tied and gagged in the shade of a lone juniper tree. Once they found Vin, they would return to pick him up.
Chris and Buck scrambled back down to the trail where they had left their horses.
"Can we get to the camp from here?" Buck inquired.
Chris shook his head. "We could make it on foot, but I don't like the idea of going into this situation without horses. It'll take a bit longer to go back and around by the main trail, but it's the safest plan."
Buck nodded. "Let's ride, then. It'll be full daylight soon."
Chris looked up to see that the vibrant colors of the dawn sky were giving way to an eerie half-light that would only too soon change to daylight. He cursed the necessity of the detour that had taken up so much precious time, but there was nothing for it now but to press on. Without another word, he mounted and led the way back down the steep trail, cursing all the way at the slow pace they were forced to adopt.
The two men met up with their companions at the bottom of the trail. The remaining five men were variously seated or standing and the atmosphere was tense.
Ezra raised an interrogative eyebrow as Chris and Buck rode in. "Well?"
"One man. He's taken care of," Chris said shortly. "Mount up, we don't have much time."
"How much further is it?" JD settled into the saddle, gathering the reins.
"Less than an hour, if we ride hard," Josh replied.
"Then, let's ride!" Chris wheeled his horse around and spurred it into a gallop. Behind him he heard the thundering hooves of six other horses as they began the final race against time to save Vin's life.
Buck Wilmington guided his horse along the narrow, rocky trail, his whole concentration needed to keep up with the black-clad figure ahead. Chris was setting a pace that was dangerously fast for this terrain, but none of the riders was about to complain. They all knew that every minute could make the difference between life and death for Vin.
Buck could tell by the stiff way Chris was holding himself in the saddle that the gunfighter was strung tight as a bow string and that he would remain that way until they found Tanner.
Buck cursed under his breath as his thoughts traveled to Ella Gaines and the hell she had already put Chris through. Chris had parted ways with Ella just before Buck met him, but he had told Buck tales about her that had made Buck's hair curl and that was something back then, when he and Chris had themselves been wild and reckless. Chris had said life with Ella was like walking on the edge of a sharp knife, but who could have guessed that she was capable of committing the unspeakably cruel act of arranging the fire that had killed Chris's family? And now, what was going on in her mind? He could only think that she had truly taken leave of her senses and if she had, he couldn't bring himself to imagine what Vin might be suffering at her hands.
Buck was afraid - for Vin, whose life was on the line, but equally for Chris. The friendship between Chris and Vin was understated and unassuming, but Buck knew that the ties of mutual respect and regard that held them together were stronger than the bond between most brothers. Just a few short months ago, the two of them had been at odds over the affair with Ella and he had watched with a sense growing helplessness and despair as each of them was torn apart by the rift. They settled their differences and he had noted that the friendship was even stronger than before. He knew with a sinking certainty that if Vin died at Ella's hands, Chris would fall back into his black abyss and that, this time, nothing would be able to bring him back.
Chris reined his horse to a halt and held up a hand. He looked back at Josh for confirmation of their location and the boy nodded. Buck dismounted along with the others at Chris's signal.
"What's the layout of their camp?" Chris asked.
"Just off the trail there's a stand of trees; the horses are tethered there. A bit further on, the trail opens out into a meadow near the bend in the river. That's where they're camped."
"How far to the trees?" Buck asked.
"Just around the next bend."
"Any guards posted?"
Josh shook his head. I don't think so; there weren't last night."
Chris nodded. "All right. We move ahead on foot. Keep together until we reach the tree line. Then we'll spread out and surround them. Keep your eyes peeled and watch yourselves."
Buck followed Chris up the final part of the trail. He wasn't a religious man, didn't usually give such things much thought, but now he found himself praying that they would be in time.