The trail, a few hours from Four Corners. . .
Chris Larabee rode along the dry, hard-packed trail, his eyes scanning the terrain around him, and his companion, without much conscious thought. It was late afternoon, the sun dropping closer and closer to the western horizon and they were riding almost directly into the blinding rays, on their way home.
He pulled his hat down a little farther, hoping to ease the slight headache that had started to pound behind his eyes. He was hot and tired and dirty and all he really wanted was to get back to town and wash the trail dust out of his throat with a glass of whiskey before he soaked the rest off in a cool bath.
Beside him, Vin was also scanning the landscape with his sharp blue eyes and Larabee wondered how the younger man could look so damn comfortable in this heat when he was wearing that heavy hide coat of his. The early summer weather had already started heating up too much as far as he was concerned, although it was still almost cold at night once the sun set. He knew part of it had to be that Tanner had no fat on his bones, but it still made him hotter just looking at the man when he was wearing that damn coat. Why, he himself had even opted for a light gray shirt in an effort to escape some of the effects of the heat on the trail.
A breeze kicked up, like it had been doing on and off all day, the dust swirling up from the trail and causing their horses to snort and blow to clear their nostrils. Both men squinted to protect their eyes, but it was impossible to keep the fine particulates from turning the undersides of their eyelids into something akin to sandpaper.
Chris jumped slightly when Tanner sneezed, surprising him. The attack came in that same moment.
Larabee watched, confused, as Vin was apparently knocked off his horse by some invisible hand, the tracker's big black gelding squealing and bolting away even as the sound of a rifle's report reached them from the nearby hills.
Larabee lurched off his gelding, scrambling for the cover of the shallow wash running alongside the trail. A second bullet buzzed past him, plucking at his ribs and rending the uncharacteristic grey shirt he was wearing. Still, it was enough to throw him off balance. He tripped, the tip of his boot catching on a stone in the hard dirt, sending him careening gracelessly into the wash. He cursed as he felt other sharp stones tearing his clothing and bruising his shoulder and back.
He rolled over onto his belly and pushed himself up slightly, trying to get a look at the tracker. Had he moved? Was he dead?
"Vin," he called lowly.
There was no reply.
"Tanner," he snapped a little louder, a little more panicked, and this time he heard a soft moan in response. "Vin?"
"'M still breathin'," came a raspy, thoroughly annoyed, reply.
"Lay still," he called, seeing the flash of sunlight reflecting off gunmetal at the top of a nearby hill. "Looks like whoever it was is comin' to check on his work."
"In fer a helluva surprise, then," Vin drawled laconically, "seein' as how we're both still breathin'."
"Yeah, reckon it will be," Larabee agreed, a small, predatory grin curling the corners of his mouth in anticipation.
Just then another bullet slammed into the ground next to Larabee's head. His body jerked reflexively as dirt was kicked up into his face and the blond dropped flat to the ground and lay motionless, hoping the shooter thought he had killed him. The ploy seemed to have worked since there were no more shots fired.
The two peacekeepers lay where they were, another breeze sending the dust swirling up around them, nearly choking them as they waited for their attacker to reach them.
When Larabee heard the sound of approaching hoof beats, he carefully eased his Colt out of his holster and continued to wait.
A few long moments later he saw a man ride into view. He was around Larabee's age, although maybe a few years older, blond, and dressed all in black. The vision, like looking into a slightly distorted mirror, sent a chill snaking down Chris' spine. He watched as the man pulled his roan up next to Tanner's body and looked down at the tracker.
When the stranger started to reach for his revolver, Chris pushed up onto his knees, his Colt flashing up with astonishing speed, but a loose rock gave way under his knee, destroying his aim.
The stranger tried to shift his shot from the tracker to Larabee, but it was too late. The gunslinger's bullet caught the stranger in the face and he toppled off the back of his horse, which snorted, crow-hopped right over Tanner, and lunged away. It stopped close by, though, uncertain what to do.
"Vin?" Chris called, scrambling out of the wash and checking to make sure the stranger was indeed dead before he moved to Tanner's side. Vin was sitting up, his hand pressed to his side, just above his hip. "You hit?"
The tracker nodded. "He dead?"
"Yep." Chris reached out and helped Tanner to his feet. He glanced around, finding his horse and the stranger's roan standing close by. There was no sign of Peso. Then Vin whistled sharply and the big black gelding came trotting back into view.
"Glad he listens to you," Chris said, shaking his head.
Vin grinned. "Hell, he don't listen, just knows when I whistle fer 'im I'm gonna give him one 'a Mrs. Potter's molasses candies if he comes."
Larabee chuckled and shook his head again. Leave it to Tanner to bribe that polecat he called a horse into doing what he wanted him to do. "Let's get off the trail and I'll take a look at that," Chris said, gesturing at the wound.
Vin nodded. "Want t' see if we c'n find his camp," he said. "Might find out who he was an' why he's lyin' in wait fer us."
Chris walked back to the dead man and stared down at him for a long moment. The chill returned. He could just as easily be looking down at himself and, with the man's face looking like it was, he wasn't sure that anyone who saw the dead man wouldn't think that it was him who had been killed instead. It was a somewhat sobering picture.
Gritting his teeth, Larabee wrestled the man's body off the ground and draped it over the roan's saddle. He tied the corpse down and, taking the horse's reins, walked stiffly back to his own horse and mounted. Seeing that Vin was ready to go as well, he headed out in the direction of the hill from where the stranger had ambushed them.
It looked like they wouldn't be getting back to Four Corners today after all.
A short while later
Reaching the man's camp, Chris cut the stranger free, the body falling to the ground. He toed the dead man over and shook his head, once more struck by their physical similarities. Then, glancing back over at the tracker, he found Tanner already sitting next to the man's small campfire. He had taken off his hide coat and had pulled up his shirt and undershirt.
There was a nasty red mark burned into the tracker's flesh, just above Tanner's hip, and it was oozing blood that rolled down, soaking into the top of his pants.
Grabbing the canteen off the roan's saddle, as well as his own saddlebags, Larabee walked over and sat down next to the tracker, saying, "Here, let me take care of that."
Vin looked up, a small smile on his lips. "Hell, Lar'bee, it ain't nothin' but a graze."
Chris dug into his saddlebags, pulling out some bandages and a small tin. He poured water from the canteen onto one of the strips of cloth and used it to clean the wound, which proved not to be very deep, a fact for which Larabee was immensely grateful.
After tossing the bloody cloth into the flames, Chris opened the tin and rubbed some of the ointment over the furrow and then folded up another strip of cloth into a pad and pressed it against the wound. Vin winched, but he still reached down, holding the pad in place while the blond wound three more strips around the tracker's middle to hold the pad firmly in place.
Tanner pulled his shirt down when Chris was done, but he didn't bother to pull the hide coat back on.
"Hand me the man's saddlebags an' I'll see what I c'n find," Tanner said, deciding he didn't feel much like moving much just yet.
Chris nodded and stood, walking over to grab the bags before he set about taking care of all three horses and then getting some dinner started for them.
"Damn," he heard the tracker sigh a short while later.
"What is it?" Larabee asked him.
Vin held up a wanted dodger with his sketch on it. "Guess he was huntin' me. Sorry y' got caught in the middle of it."
Chris shook his head. "Probably that damn writer's fault. Steel," he grumbled, remembering all too well the annoying little man who had haunted their shadows for several days a few months back.
Tanner shrugged. "Hell, Cowboy, never heard 'a no bounty hunter believin' what's writ in one 'a them dime-store storybooks."
"That furrow in your side says different," Larabee replied, nodding at the wound.
"Here," Vin said, holding out a letter. "Dust still has m' eyes a mite blurry."
Chris reached out, taking the envelope and wondering why Vin was so ashamed of his illiteracy. But not wanting to hurt the younger man's feelings, he accepted the flimsy explanation and opened the envelope, pulling out the letter he found inside. Unfolding the sheet of paper he read what was written there.
"The son-of-a-bitch," Larabee hissed.
"What?" Tanner questioned, a frown wrinkling his forehead.
"Royal," Chris growled, then jerked his head in the direction of the corpse. "You know who that is?"
"Nope," Tanner said simply.
"Samuel Black. Ever hear of him? He was a pretty big name a few years back."
Tanner's head snapped around and he stared at the dead man. "Hell, pard, we're lucky t' be alive if that's really Samuel 'Kansas' Black."
Larabee gave a soft snort. "Heard he'd retired. . ." he mused, trailing off as he tried to remember. "Think I heard something about his eyes gettin' weak. That's why he decided to retire."
"Reckon they's right 'bout that," Tanner replied with a sly grin, "seein' as how we're both still breathin'. But it sure don't look like he retired t' me."
Shaking his head, Chris watched their dinner cooking while Tanner finished going through Black's saddlebags.
"Hey, Chris. . ."
Larabee looked up just in time to grab the item Tanner threw at him. Snatching it out of the air he asked, "What's this?"
The tracker flashed him a cocky grin. "New shirt," he replied, nodding at Chris, who looked down to find that the gray shirt he was wearing now had several holes in it, a couple of them rather large. "Seems he favors same color shirts as you," Tanner added. "Looks to be 'bout your size, too."
Chris flashed him one of his infamous glares, but there was little power behind it. He shook out the shirt and, finding the cut to his liking, he laid it on his lap, pulled off the ruined garment and tossed it over to Vin, who chuckled as he shoved it back into Black's saddlebags. Larabee pulled the almost new black shirt on and buttoned it up.
When he was done, Tanner tossed him a pouch he'd found at the bottom of the dead man's bags. Larabee opened it, his breath catching when he saw the size of the stack of bills inside. "Jesus, how much is in there?"
"Didn't count it," Tanner replied with a one-shoulder shrug. "Reckon it's a mite more 'n five hundred dollars, though."
Larabee pulled the money out and quickly counted it. "You reckon right. There's seven hundred dollars here."
"Maybe ol' Kansas got himself a bounty 'fore he come lookin' fer us."
"Or maybe Royal's already paid him to kill us. He probably heard about us taking that prisoner over to Red Bluff for the Judge. He could've told Black we'd be coming back this way."
"Royal might reckon seven hundred was worth it t' him," Vin agreed, watching Larabee return the money to the pouch, which he then tucked into the back of his black jeans. "Y' think he was gunnin' just fer us?"
"The letter says there's seven men Royal wants dead. Guess he was willing to pay a hundred dollars apiece for us."
Vin snorted and shook his head. "Stingy bastard, ain't he."
That prompted a smile from Chris. "A hundred a head might look pretty good to a gunman whose eyes are failing him."
"Guess we ought t' be thankful Royal likes t' hold on t' his money. Otherwise he might 'a hired somebody younger an' we'd both be in Hell by now."
"Guess that either makes us lucky or Royal stupid."
"Hell, Chris, always knew we's lucky," Vin drawled, "what with us riskin' our necks fer a dollar a day."
"Yeah," Larabee replied. "Good thing some days we're luckier than others."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
A short while later they were both eating, Vin leaning back against a rock to help ease the ache in his side. As soon as he was done, Tanner set his plate aside and quickly fell asleep. Chris decided to let him rest where he was until he'd cleaned up, then he would lay out the man's bedroll and get him moved over onto it. He didn't think the wound was dangerous, but it would still take some of the piss and vinegar out of the tracker.
Larabee was just coming back from cleaning their dishes when he heard the men riding up. His gun was in his hand before he even thought about it.
"Damn, Kansas," one of the new arrivals said, "heard ya was gettin' slow, but I sure as hell don't believe that any more! Y'all see that? Man's faster 'n greased lightnin'."
The other four men riding with the speaker laughed, another one of them looking over at Black's body, and then at Tanner, who hadn't stirred. Larabee frowned.
"Must be Larabee," the man said, grinning. "Heard he favored black as well."
"Heard right," Chris replied calmly. It was obvious that Black had planned to meet these men here, but why? Had they also been hired by Royal to go after him and the other peacekeepers?
"He must be pretty bad off, huh?" the first man asked him, jerking his chin in Tanner's direction.
"Bad enough," Chris replied and the men all chuckled. It didn't seem as if any of them had met Black before, so they didn't know he wasn't the gunslinger, bounty hunter and hired assassin. Or maybe they just couldn't make him out well enough in the darkness to tell.
"Ya had any fun with 'im?" another of the men asked, prompting Larabee to recall the rumors he had heard when he'd passed through a small town in Wyoming a few weeks after Black had been there. The only thing the townspeople had been talking about was Black's cruelty. He hadn't just brought in some bounties, he'd tortured the men who had been wanted dead or alive, and had prided himself on being able to keep them alive until just a few hours before he'd reached town and turned them in. And, the folks had said, he never turned someone in alive when he could do it dead - dead and ugly from the reports of the eyewitnesses.
He glanced over at Vin, who still hadn't moved and wondered if Tanner might not be playing possum. He moved a little closer to the tracker as the five dismounted and began making themselves comfortable in the camp.
Reaching Vin, he looked down at the man and saw a light sheen of sweat on the man's face. Damn, he thought, maybe that wound is worse than I figured.
Before he could do anything more, one of the strangers walked over and stood, peering down at Vin, his hands on his hips. "He dead, too?"
"Don't think so," Chris said. "Got himself shot."
"Ya mean ya missed him?" one of the others asked, and the rest all grinned, seemingly thinking that was funny.
"I don't miss," Larabee growled at the man and he took an involuntary step back.
"Why'd ya keep 'im alive?" another asked. "Ain't we supposed t' kill all them hired guns?"
Chris felt his heart lurch, but before he could respond, another of the men had reached down and grabbed Vin, pulling him up and then throwing him back to the ground and kicking the tracker in the stomach.
Larabee took two long strides and grabbed the man's arm to keep him from kicking Tanner again. "Do that again and I'll shoot you myself," he snarled.
The man pulled himself up, his eyes rounding with surprise and fear. "Hell, Black, I thought-"
"I don't give a damn what you thought," Larabee snapped, squatting down to check on Vin.
The tracker's eyes blinked open and he looked up dazedly. "Get yer hands off me," he rasped, weakly jerking his arm and trying to free himself from Larabee's grip.
Chris breathed a silent sigh of relief. Tanner understood what was going on, and he was willing to play along. It might just give them the time they needed to get the drop on the men. At least he hoped it would. If it didn't, he wasn't sure what the hell he was going to do. But right now he really wanted to see how Vin was doing.
Tanner jerked in Chris' grip again, and the blond gave him a rough shake in response. "Settle down," he snapped harshly. "You do what you're told, you might live to see another day."
The men laughed. "But probably not two," one of them called out and they all laughed some more, except for Larabee.
One of the strangers edged a little closer, his gaze darting between Larabee and Tanner as he said, "Ya ever hear what ol' Kansas here does t' men, boy? Likes to cut 'em up some, carve on 'em with his whip, and then, when he's just about ready to finish 'em off, he gelds 'em. Reckon ya got a real interestin' night ta look forward to, friend."
Chris swallowed hard and shot the man a piercing glare that chased him off.
The men went back to their own business, a couple of them cooking up some dinner, others laying out their bedrolls and taking care of their horses. Chris waited until they were all occupied, then gave Tanner a light shove.
Playing along, the tracker fell back onto the ground with a grunt, like he'd been pushed hard. Chris made a quick inspection, frowning slightly when he saw that the man's wound had bled enough to stain the cloth strips. "You all right?" he asked softly.
Vin gave him a small nod. "What's yer plan?"
"Don't have one."
"Yet?" Tanner asked hopefully.
That forced a small smile from the gunslinger. "Yet," he agreed. "Keep your head down."
"Plan on it," Vin said as Larabee pointed to the tracker's bedroll.
"Where's the Mare's Leg?" Larabee asked.
"Under m' roll."
Chris waited until Vin had moved over and laid down, then stood, gave the man a kick that he pulled at the last second, and then walked back to the fire as Tanner rolled onto his side, moaning lowly like he'd really been hurt. One of the men, the leader of the group Larabee guessed from the way others looked to him before they did much of anything, walked over to his saddlebags, pulling some items out.
He walked over to Vin, shoved a large hunting knife into the ground and tied a long rawhide thong to the hilt. To that he tied a sheep bell, and then he attached the free end to the tracker's ankle.
Larabee's eyes narrowed.
The man stood, his task done, and looked at Chris. "Just makin' sure he don't try t' go anywhere."
The blond nodded. It didn't appear that the men knew Tanner was worth five hundred dollars, which meant Black had intended to collect the reward for himself when things were over. A little added bonus, in addition to the money he'd already been paid, which was in keeping with what Larabee had heard about the man.
One of the men dished up a plate of beans for Tanner and carried it over to the tracker. "Best eat it, might be the last meal ya ever get," he said as he handed it to the man.
Tanner hesitated for a moment, and Chris thought he might just knock it out of the man's hand, but then he took the plate and settled back with it, beginning to eat.
Larabee walked over to Peso and grabbed Tanner's canteen, tossing it over next to the tracker and forcing him to quickly grab it up when the stopper was knocked out on impact. The men laughed as Vin had to stretch out to grab the container, pulling the rawhide thong tight and making the bell ring.
Rejoining the other men, Chris sat down, saying, "Had to make sure that damn contraption was going to work."
The men responded with smiles, relaxing as they all began to eat. Larabee accepted a plate from one of them and listened closely to their conversation, quickly picking out the men's names. Zebulon Maxwell was the apparent leader - a big man, with black hair and hard brown eyes. His younger brother, Jacob, was a smaller version of Zeb, but there was something about the man that rubbed Chris wrong, more so than his brother did. Then there was Robert Thomas, a non-descript man who had the shiftiest eyes he'd ever seen and a twitch in one cheek that made him want to shoot the bastard where he sat. Charlie Daws and "Dogleg" Cartwright rounded out the crew of five, both of them older than Jacob and Robert, and well-seasoned from the looks of them. Dogleg was almost as big as Zeb, and Larabee could sense that he was the most dangerous one of the group.
Larabee was pretty sure now that the seven hundred dollars he and Vin had found was the money Royal had given Black to kill them - a hundred dollars per man. Not bad. Not as good as the five Tanner was worth, but that suited him just fine.
Chris filled his coffee cup as Zebulon stood. "You and I need t' talk, Black," he said, nodding to where the horses had been picketed.
The blond stood and, with his coffee cup in hand, followed the big man over to the animals. Zeb glanced back at the others, then over at Vin, and finally at the corpse. "The wire I got from Royal said we'd all be in on the killin' of these seven men. Now one of 'em's already dead and another one's out of the fight. . ."
"Yeah?" Larabee questioned, wondering where this was leading.
The big man shifted from one foot to the other and Larabee realized that he was more than a little afraid of Black. He thought back, trying to remember what more he'd heard about Kansas Black. What about the man could bring a man like Zebulon Maxwell under heel? Black was cruel and vindictive, but that wouldn't be enough. Then he remembered - Black was also a back-shooter when it served his purposes, a fact Maxwell wasn't likely to forget.
Zeb huffed out a breath, his hands shoved into his pockets. "Hell, Black, I ain't gonna argue over the two hundred dollars fer these two, not when there's another five ta be made killin' the rest of them hired guns. You keep the two for this pair and let me and the boys take care of the rest of 'em."
"You think you and 'the boys' can do that?" Chris asked, his tone more than a little challenging.
Zeb laughed nervously. "Hell, yes, we can," he said. "Heard one of them men's long in the tooth, and a former preacher t' boot. Another one's a darkie healer."
"Funny," Larabee said dryly, "I heard they all know how to fight."
"Yeah, well, guess that's why Royal brought us in to back you up," the man replied, looking a little concerned about how Black might take that. "Not that ya needed the help, Kansas," he added quickly, "seein' as how you took these two down all on yer lonesome, but ya already done more 'n your share. Besides, it'll be harder in town. Me and the boys will take care of the rest of them men, so you can, uh, you can go ahead and pay me now."
Chris thought for a moment and then he shook his head. "Don't think so, Zeb," he said, his tone disdainful. "Think I'll ride along with ya, make sure this goes as smooth as you seem to think it will. Gotta make sure Royal gets what he paid for."
Maxwell snorted. "An old preacher, a darkie, a cowboy, a gambler and a kid sheriff. . . How hard can it be? Ya already took down the two men Royal was most worryin' on. An' I still think ya oughtta just kill that other fella and be done with it."
"Which is why I don't think I need you boys' help," Chris said, ignoring the part about Vin. "Reckon I can take care of this for Royal all by myself."
That rose Maxwell's ire and he pulled himself up. "Now, listen here, Black, me and the boys rode hard to get here - all the way from Colorado - just like Mr. Royal told us to. He promised us a hundred dollars a man. Seein' as how you got two already, ya keep your money, but ya let me and the rest of the boys do our job and get our payday, too. Ya already got twice as much as any one of us is gonna get."
Larabee pretended to think that over, wishing the man had decided to just saddle up and ride out, along with the rest of his "boys." But that would have been too easy, and his life was rarely easy. So, if he couldn't stop them from going after the others, he'd just have to go along and hope that he and Vin could help turn the tables when the time came.
He nodded. "All right, tell ya what, Zeb. . . I'll just ride along and watch, and when it's over, if any of ya are still alive, I'll give ya the five hundred to split between ya."
Maxwell grinned. "All right, I can go along with that." He dropped his voice and glanced over at the men. "Hell, might even hope them boys put up a good fight. . . maybe kill ol' Robert or Dogleg. . . Hell, maybe even both."
"Not Charlie and Jacob?" Chris asked him, a little surprised a man like Maxwell would care.
"Well, Jacob's blood, y'see, an' Charlie. . . Well, ol' Charlie's he's good for a laugh."
Larabee shrugged like that wasn't something that would ever matter to him. And it wouldn't, not to Samuel Kansas Black, anyway. "Course, you all get yourselves killed, I'll just end up having to do the job myself, and keep the whole seven hundred."
"We leavin' in the morning?" Zeb asked him, frowning as if he hadn't considered that might happen.
Chris nodded, hoping he could come up with a plan before they started out at first light. He wished he could talk with Vin, but he knew it would be out of character for Black to "chat" with a prisoner, so he would just have to come up with something on his own. Something that wouldn't get him, or Vin, or the others, killed. A tall order as far as he was concerned, but hell, they had faced worse odds, much worse, since they had taken up this trail they were all still riding.
He watched Maxwell return to the fire, speaking softly to his men and letting them know that they wouldn't be getting paid until they had completed the job they'd been hired for.
Larabee's eyes narrowed. When this was over, he was going to ride out to Royal's ranch and personally shove Vin's Mare's Leg up the man's ass and pull the fucking trigger.
Later that night
Larabee knew there was going to be trouble, but he had no idea it would turn out like it did. If he had known, he probably would have tried to take the men down right there as they sat around the campfire.
Maxwell, when he returned to the fire after his talk with Larabee, gave the okay for his men to share a bottle of whiskey. "But just one," he'd told them sternly.
Jacob Maxwell didn't actually drink much himself, Chris noticed, but the other four men were more than happy to indulge themselves. They probably figured they had little to lose since the following day they would be going up against five paid hired guns.
Charlie Daws turned out to be a rather happy drunk, telling jokes and even dancing a jig or two around the fire. Larabee could see why Zeb had said the man was good for a laugh. Under different circumstances he might have even liked the man himself. He didn't really seem much like a hired killer.
Dogleg and Robert Thomas, however, both turned mean. So, when a dancing Charlie stumbled over Tanner's feet and fell, Dogleg and Thomas both went after the tracker, claiming that he'd tripped the man on purpose.
Before Chris could intervene, they had jerked Tanner to his feet - the sheep bell ringing loudly in the darkness - and landed several blows, one of which was directly to the wound on the man's side. That dropped Vin to the ground where he curled up, his arms over his head, trying to protect himself from more harm as the two men savagely kicked him.
Larabee knew he couldn't interfere too quickly or the men would get suspicious, and the whiskey already had them encouraging him to demonstrate how he slowly tortured his prisoners to death, using Vin as the example. He'd waved them off a couple of times already, telling them he had more important plans for the tracker the following day, but they continued to push him until he'd finally threatened to use one of them if they were so determined to learn his secrets. That had finally shut them up.
But he also knew he was going to have to find a way to stop them from attacking the tracker, or Vin might not live to see the sunrise.
"Enough!" he barked harshly and the two men stopped, both of them breathing heavily. "I told ya I have plans for him tomorrow. I need him to be able to sit his horse."
"Hell," Dogleg snarled back, "we could tie him into his saddle even if he's dead. Besides, we's just having us some fun, Black." The big man's eyes narrowed. "Heard ya were pretty good with a whip," he said, his tone mocking. "Why don't ya show us?"
"Heard he was even better with that Colt," Charlie added. "Think he could shoot a cigar out 'a his mouth?" He gestured at Tanner, who was still curled into a ball, either being careful, or unconscious.
Robert Thomas reached down and wrestled Vin to his feet. "Shoot his ear off, Kansas," he slurred.
Larabee pushed to his feet and stalked over to Thomas and Tanner, but before he could grab Vin away from the man, Jacob Maxwell stepped in, grabbing the tracker by the arm and jerking him along until he reached a spot where two small trees grew close together.
Chris was about to start in on Zebulon when the big man said, "Hell, Black, let the boys have a little fun with him. We ain't gonna kill him; wouldn't take that away from ya. But I still don't see why you're so set on keepin' him alive."
"Hey, Zeb, I'll bet ya ol' Kansas here is gonna use 'im t' lure them other peacekeepers out int' the open," Charlie said. "Ain't that right, Kansas?"
"Can't use a dead man for bait," Larabee snapped, having to stand by and watch as Dogleg and Jacob stripped Tanner of his clothes and tied him up between the two trees, his arms stretched taut between them. He didn't like the way this was going, but he just couldn't see a way to stop it, either.
"What's the matter, Black, ya lost the stomach for what ya used ta do?" Jacob asked Larabee, sneering as he did. The young man's eyes were narrowed and hard, shining with the promise of pain.
Chris wanted to shoot him where he stood, but he didn't dare. "I told you, boy, I have plans for that man, and when I'm done with him, then I'll kill him - however the hell I want to," the blond replied, his voice as cold and as deadly as anyone had ever heard it.
"We just want ta see how you keep 'em alive while ya kill 'em a little piece at a time," Dogleg said, stepping up next to Jacob, grinning and licking his lips in anticipation.
"I told you, I'm not ready to kill him yet," Chris snarled, his hand coming up to rest on the butt of his Colt.
"Fine," Jacob snapped, "don't kill him. But why don't ya rough 'im up a little?" The man's eyes flashed dangerously. "Less there's another reason why ya don't want to kill him. . . Like maybe ya talked ta him, and ya have plans ta keep all that money for yourself?"
"I already told your brother, you'll get paid - just as soon as those men are dead."
"Well, I don't believe it," Jacob snarled. "I think you're plannin' ta double-cross us."
"Ah, come on, Jake," Zebulon said. "Black here don't turn on his partners."
"Yeah? We heard he's gettin' slow, losin' his eyes, too, and that don't seem ta be true," the younger man said. "Maybe he's gone soft. Maybe he'd shoot us in the back, too."
Chris stalked over to Jacob and Dogleg, his heart hammering in his chest. "You want to find out?" he hissed, ready to take the man on right then and there.
Larabee saw Vin open his mouth to say something, but before he could, Zebulon said, "Ah, go on and enjoy yourself a little with the breed an' be done with it."
"Yeah, ain't like he's gonna be fightin' back," Jacob added, egging him on. He stepped away from Tanner and Larabee could see that the young man's gun was drawn and pointed at the tracker.
"Hell, maybe they're right," Tanner drawled. "Maybe y' are gettin' soft, Black."
Chris' jaw muscles jumped. He was trapped. If he didn't do what they wanted, Jacob might shoot Vin where he stood. His gaze swept past Tanner's and he could see the man's acceptance of the situation, but that did nothing to make him feel better about what had to happen next.
With blinding speed, Larabee's arm shot out, his closed fist catching Tanner's chin and snapping his head to the right, where Jacob stood. Spittle and blood flew from the tracker's mouth, splattering across the younger Maxwell's face.
Jacob jumped back with a yelp, cursing and wiping the bloody mess off of his face. His eyes flashing, he turned to say something to Larabee, but before he could get it out, Chris stepped closer to Tanner and drove his fist into the tracker's midsection.
Vin knifed forward as far as his arms would let him, heaving at the same time. The other men laughed as the beans he'd eaten earlier splattered onto the ground, but it only made Chris feel like throwing up himself. But he ground his jaws tightly together and continued to pummel Tanner.
Nearby, Jacob watched the spectacle, his eyes bright with enjoyment. He licked his lips and stared to laugh.
Go down, Larabee silently commanded his friend, but Tanner remained stubbornly on his feet. Go down, damn it! Go down!
When Vin's knees finally gave out, several long minutes later, he sagged, dangling from the ropes that held him upright. Larabee stepped back. He was breathing heavily, sweat rolling off his face. He paused to wipe it off with his shirtsleeve, then turned to look at Jacob, saying, "Cut him down and put him on his bedroll. And leave him the hell alone, or I'll tie you up here and show you just how long I can keep someone alive before they beg me to die. Understand?"
Without waiting for an answer, Larabee turned and stalked away. When he was away from the camp he stopped, his stomach emptying with violent contractions. When the heaves finally ceased, he pulled up a handful of grass to wipe his mouth, then turned and walked back into the camp. He sat down next to the fire, picking up the whiskey bottle and gulping down the few swallows that were left in it.
Not far away Tanner lay naked on his bedroll. He was curled up on his side, facing away from Larabee. But the blond could see that the bandage he'd tied around the man's middle was soaked through now. He cursed silently and glanced around at the others. Given the way Dogleg was staring at Tanner's naked backside, he decided he better get the tracker covered up.
Standing, he walked over to Vin and grabbed the man by the shoulder, jerking him over onto his back. The tracker groaned, his blue eyes cracking open. He peered up at Larabee, but didn't say anything.
Chris grunted and reached down, grabbing a blanket and throwing it over the man. And then he saw a flash of gratitude in those blue eyes and it sent a flash of guilt slicing through Larabee's heart. "I'm tired of looking at your ugly face," he snarled at the tracker.
The other men hooted and laughed, a little nervously, but they didn't comment on the blond's action. Nor did they wander too closely to Tanner. And that suited Larabee just fine. He only wished he could do more for his friend, but he knew that was impossible. But the canteen was still lying next to Vin's bedroll, so at least he might be able to drink once the other men settled in for the night. It wasn't enough, not nearly enough, but it was all he could do for Vin. . . for the moment, at least.
Several hours later
Chris lay on his bedroll, having finally told the others that they should get some sleep. The men had gone along with him, all of them somewhat subdued after his brutal beating of the tracker.
Still on his bedroll - and attached once more to his makeshift tether - Vin apparently slept.
More than anything, Larabee wanted to go over and check on him, but he just didn't dare. If any of the others saw him there would be questions he didn't want to answer, couldn't answer. But, at the same time, he desperately wanted to know if Vin was all right.
There would simply be no telling, not until first light. And he had that long to decide what to do when they reached Four Corners. Would Vin be able to help him?
Had he hurt the tracker seriously?
Lying there, he watched Tanner carefully in the dying light of the fire, hoping the man would do something to let him know he was all right, or at least getting by, but as far as he could tell, Vin hadn't moved at all, and that scared him.
He must have hurt the tracker worse than he'd thought. The punches had been pulled whenever he could, Tanner playing along, making it look like he was taking a worse beating than he really was, but there were some he couldn't pull, Jacob or Dogleg too close for him to risk faking the blow. And one of those might have really hurt the man.
Damn it, Vin, he thought. Do something. Let me know you're all right, please.
But Tanner remained still.
Larabee sighed and closed his eyes. There was no way he could make plans for the next day. Zeb and his men would do this however they thought they should, and the chances they would listen to any plan he came up with was slim or none. They didn't really trust him. So he might as well get some sleep, if he could, and just be ready for anything. Usually, with Vin at his side, he felt like he could handle most anything, but Tanner was hurting. . . had been hurt by his hand, and Chris was at a loss about what it might mean - for Tanner's life, or for their friendship.
He just hoped the man survived. Then, if he held Chris to blame, so be it. As long as Vin got out of this alive, that was all that mattered, and Larabee vowed silently that he would make sure that happened, even if it cost him his own life. It was a price he was more than willing to pay after what he'd done.
The following morning
Several hours later, the darkness gave way to the gray light of dawn. The men began to stir.
Charlie set about putting some coffee on the fire while the rest of the men grumbled as they rose and set to work, stowing their bedrolls and preparing to break camp. Chris did the same, carefully watching Tanner as best he could.
Vin still hadn't moved as far as he could tell, and that had him more than a little worried. What if he'd killed the man?
God, no, he prayed silently. He couldn't have, could he?
Zebulon stopped next to Tanner, nudging him with the toe of his boot. The tracker grunted, pain-dulled eyes opening slowly.
The relief he felt, seeing those defiant blue eyes, made Larabee's knees go weak. He stalked over to the men, snapping at Vin, "Get up. Get your clothes on."
Tanner glowered up at him, but he sat up and climbed slowly to his feet, holding the blanket wrapped around him.
The blond looked at Zeb, saying, "Leave him with me and pack up your gear. We're leaving."
Maxwell nodded, walking off.
Larabee stood near Vin, keeping an eye on the others while Tanner dressed. He couldn't help but notice that the tracker was moving slowly, stiffly, and he couldn't stop the stab of guilt that assailed him when he saw the developing bruises covering the man's torso and back. Noting the soaked bandage, he wanted to check the wound, but again he didn't dare.
When Vin was dressed, he knelt down and wrapped up his bedroll, making sure to slip his Mare's Leg inside when Larabee nodded that the coast was clear.
When that was done, Larabee took Tanner's arm and led him over to Peso, letting him tie the bedroll to the back of his saddle. Vin also managed a long drink from his canteen. But before Chris could ask the man how he was doing, Dogleg walked over to join them.
The big man grinned at the tracker, but he directed his question to Chris. "What do ya want to do with Larabee's body?"
"Leave it," the blond snarled, not feeling in the slightest bit charitable toward Samuel Kansas Black, who had put them in this situation.
"Man deserves better than that," Tanner argued, blue eyes flashing angrily.
"More reason to leave him right where he is," Larabee snarled back, grateful to Vin for giving him the excuse he needed to enforce the decision.
Dogleg laughed. "Yeah, might as well let the critters have him. Ain't good for anything else, is he?"
Vin glowered at the man, and Chris prodded the tracker before Dogleg could retaliate.
Tanner climbed into his saddle.
Dogleg stepped up to the tracker and tied his hands tightly to his saddle horn, then turned and walked away.
Chris looked up at Vin, asking, "You gonna make it to town?"
Tanner gave him a brief single nod.
Their eyes met, green asking for forgiveness, blue bestowing it.
A few minutes later, the rest of the men were mounted and ready to go, their plans for coffee forgotten. They started off for the small town, Dogleg leading Tanner as they rode along in silence.
But it didn't take Chris long before he could see that Vin was hurting - the man's shoulders pinched, his back stiff. And, given the way his face was flushed, Larabee was also pretty sure that he was running a fever as well.
The gunslinger made sure he rode so he could keep an eye on Tanner, but he wasn't sure what he'd be able to do if the tracker needed to stop. He doubted Maxwell or his men would give a damn, and they certainly wouldn't understand it if Kansas Black showed concern for a prisoner. So Larabee rode in silence, his anger mounting with each passing mile.
Now and then Peso would snort and jerk his head, trying to pull free from Dogleg's grasp. The man would curse and yank on the reins, trying to quell the stubborn gelding. But Peso remained unhappy about being led until Vin finally growled something at him in an Indian tongue and he settled down.
After a couple of miles, Dogleg grew bored with the now placid black and passed off Peso's reins to Charlie. Larabee hid a predatory grin at the change, knowing it favored him and Vin. . . If Tanner was in any condition to help him when they finally reached Four Corners. . .
A few hours later
The men stopped at the top of a slight rise just outside of town. Chris guessed that the others would be in the saloon eating lunch about now.
He was just glad the long ride was over. It was a damn miracle that Vin was still in his saddle. And as it was, the man was hunched over his saddle horn, his chin tucked tight to his chest. Sweat rolled down his gray face, dripping onto his bound hands.
Larabee glanced over at Zeb. "How you plannin' to handle this?" he asked the big man.
Maxwell thought for a moment, then heaved a long sigh and said, "Well, since ya caught the bait for us, I reckon we'll go fishin'. Seeing their friend ought ta bring 'em out from hiding. All we have to do is shoot 'em down."
Larabee nodded, but he had his own ideas about what was going to happen, and it didn't include his friends being gunned down.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
By the time it was over, Chris could honestly say it went both better and worse than he'd expected.
Zeb rode into town first, Dogleg beside him. Robert and Jacob followed, Charlie bringing up the rear, still leading a cooperative Peso. The five men already had their revolvers in their hands.
Chris dropped back so he was slightly behind the tracker, and in a position where he could defend the man when the time came.
No one paid much attention to them at first, very few people out on the street as the heat climbed. Then Buck and JD stepped out of the saloon, and onto the boardwalk. They spotted Tanner immediately.
"Vin?" JD called worriedly when we saw the other men had their guns on him and Buck.
Tanner's head came up and before the young sheriff could call Chris' name, he stated loudly, "Larabee's dead. Reckon y' better listen t' what these men have t' say."
Buck and JD both looked confused, but the ladies' man nodded, his gaze sweeping over Chris as he asked, "What's going on here, boys?"
Larabee moved up closer to Vin, pulling his Colt and pressing it to the tracker's head. "Tell the rest of the hired guns to get out here - now."
"Or the breed here dies," Zeb added.
JD took a couple of steps back, then called over his shoulder into the saloon, "Josiah? You and Nate and Ezra better get out here. Chris is dead and some men are holding Vin hostage."
A moment later the three men were stalking out of the saloon, their guns drawn.
"Put the guns down, boys," Zeb instructed, gesturing with his Colt, "or ol' Kansas here'll kill your friend."
"Looks like ya already tried once," Nathan said, his voice cold and hard. And his gun stayed in his hand.
"You heard the man," Larabee said. "Put the guns down."
"I don't think so," Buck replied, his own hand coming up to rest on the butt of his Peacemaker.
JD followed Buck's lead, his gaze slipping between Wilmington and Larabee.
"Ah, the hell with this," Dogleg said, raising his gun and taking aim at Buck. But before he could fire, Chris snapped his gun around and squeezed off a shot, catching the man in the side and toppling him off his horse.
All hell broke loose.
Gunfire filled the street, Maxwell and his men firing on the peacekeepers, and them firing back.
Chris spurred his gelding and the black lurched forward, putting him even with Charlie. "Drop the gun," he snarled, gun pointed at the man's face.
Charlie jerked, saw Black aiming for him, and gigged his horse, which lurched away, jerking Peso right along with him. Peso collided with Larabee's horse, which spun to try and get out of the way, nearly throwing the already off-balance blond out of the saddle. He lost sight of Vin in the skirmish.
However, Chris did see that Jacob was off his horse, using the frightened animals for cover as he tried to find an open target.
Jacob, catching part of the exchange between Chris and Charlie, also reacted and took a shot at Tanner.
The bullet whizzed over the tracker's shoulder and Vin slipped down along Peso's side, holding on to the horn so only his leg remained as a target. But the big black was unhappy with all the shooting going on around him, and his rider, clinging to his side, and he half-reared with a fighting squeal that spooked Charlie's mount. The bay shied away, forcing the man to release Peso's reins or be dragged out of the saddle.
Charlie wheeled his gelding around and tried to get off a shot at Chris, but Larabee was already moving, catching up Peso's trailing reins and trying to lead the animal away from the fray.
Jacob swatted Charlie's bay out of his way and took aim at the two men again, pulling the trigger.
Josiah, seeing what Jacob was trying to do, stepped out into the open and fired at the man, his bullet lifting the assassin off the ground only to fall heavily back into the dust, Peso trampling him as the black tried to escape the danger.
Charlie got off another shot that knocked Chris' hat off his head, but before he could get Pony turned around so he could return fire, one of Nathan's knives sank into Daws' chest and he slumped over and then slid off his saddle, landing hard on the ground a moment later.
Silence descended upon the street, although dust still swirled through the air as riderless horses trotted away.
Five men lay scattered in the dirt.
Nathan came out from cover, quickly checking each of the bodies on his way to Chris and Vin. They were all dead, he thought, but he called to Josiah, asking him to check them over as well - just to be sure.
Reaching his two friends, he helped Chris wrestle Vin back into his saddle, the tracker unable to do it himself. Then he used one of his knives to cut Tanner's hands free.
"What happed to him?" he asked Larabee as they both pulled Vin back down, supporting him between them when his legs refused to hold his weight.
"He was grazed yesterday afternoon," Chris replied, then added, "and beaten pretty bad last night."
"Let's get him up to the clinic so I can get a look," Nathan said and the two men started off while the others began moving the dead men off the street.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
With Chris' help, Nathan stripped Vin down and got him laid out on the bed in the clinic. He shook his head when he saw the extent of the bruising. "And you couldn't stop some of this?" he asked the gunslinger.
Chris' face flushed and he shook his head, unable to speak the words that were trapped in his suddenly tight throat: Stop it? I was the one who did it.
"Set some water on to warm," Nathan instructed, not even bothering to look up from where he was cutting the strips of cloth free from Tanner's midsection.
Larabee crossed the room and set a pot of water onto the small stove so it could heat, then returned to the bed, watching as Jackson tried to tease the pad of cloth off Tanner's side wound.
Vin whimpered and pulled away, but he didn't wake up, and Chris wondered when the man had finally passed out.
Nathan shook his head. "It's infected," he said. "That water warm yet?"
Chris returned to the stove and tested the water. "Warm, but that's all."
"That's good enough," Nathan said. "I need to get this bandage off and get that wound cleaned out."
Larabee wrapped a cloth around the handle on the pot and carried it over to Nathan, who pointed to the small bedside table. Chris set the pot down and got out of the way.
The healer placed a towel below the wound, then dipped a cloth into the warm water and squeezed it out onto the blood-soaked pad. After a few times, he was able to pull the pad away from the wound, which was an angry red color and draining.
Nathan mumbled something to himself, his head shaking. He looked up at Larabee, saying, "Grab me some more cloths and then grab his feet. This is gonna hurt some."
"Some" was an understatement, but the tracker's reaction to the water and then the squeezing was nothing compared to his reaction when Nathan poured carbolic over the cleaned out wound.
Vin came awake with a strangled scream, sitting up in bed and swinging. Luckily, Nathan had anticipated the reaction and he had gotten out of the way. But he quickly moved back, catching Tanner when his strength failed him a moment later.
He lowered Vin back to the bed, the tracker panting for breath. "Easy," he said. "I'm all done."
"Glad t' hear that, Doc," Tanner managed.
"That wound was infected. Had t' clean it out good. Sorry it hurt ya like it done."
Vin nodded. His gaze slipped around the room. "What happened?"
"They're dead," Chris said softly.
Vin turned his head, searching out the gunslinger. "Anybody hurt?"
"Not on our side," Nathan said with a slight grin. "But right now, you jus' worry 'bout gettin' better, y'hear me? Yo'r gonna run a fever for a while. Ya save yo'r strength for that."
Vin nodded, his eyes already feeling too heavy to keep them open. But he needed to see Chris before he could rest. "Cowboy?" he called.
Nathan looked over at Larabee and saw the man's expression. "I'm gonna go get some more water," he said, letting the gunslinger know he was giving them some time alone.
Chris gave him a slight nod in reply and waited until the healer was gone before he moved over to the side of the bed, looking down at the wounded man, but unable to meet the man's eyes.
"Damn, Vin. . ."
"Want y' t' listen t' me," Tanner said softly.
Chris forced himself to meet the man's eyes. "Vin-"
"Just want y' t' know that I ain't mad, 'n' I don't blame y' fer what happened. Y' did what had t' be done t' keep us both alive. So don't go sayin' yer sorry, 'cause y' ain't got nothin' t' be sorry fer."
"I hurt you," he replied.
"It hurt, but it sure as hell beats bein' dead."
Larabee nodded. He had known all along that Vin would forgive him, but that didn't mean he was ready to forgive himself. Not until the tracker was back on his feet, healing and out of danger. Then, maybe, he would consider it.
"Get some rest," he said softly.
"Y' gonna do the same?"
Chris shook his head. "Thought I'd sit here, make sure you don't sneak out while Nathan's got his back turned."
Vin grinned and snorted softly, but as his eyes closed, he mumbled quietly, "'Preciate it. . . Cowboy."
Later that night
Tanner's fever rose, peaked and broke by midnight. Nathan was pleased, and he said so.
"Get some sleep," Josiah told the healer. "I'll sit up with them."
Nathan glanced over at Larabee, who hadn't left the clinic since they had brought Vin up that morning, except to use the privy. "All right, but you call me if anything changes. Reckon they'll both sleep 'til mornin' now."
Josiah nodded, leaning back in his chair and closing the Bible that was lying open on his lap. He studied the two sleeping men. Several hours ago, as they had been busy trying to keep Tanner's fever under control, Chris had told them what had happened.
He shook his head, saddened that Chris had been forced to hurt the man he held closer in his heart than a brother. But he knew Vin had forgiven him. As he knew the tracker would before Chris confirmed it. Tanner's heart was as big as his spirit.
The former priest was a little surprised that Royal had been willing to part with seven hundred dollars to get rid of them. And if he'd paid it once, he'd probably be willing to spend it again.
Larabee had handed each of them a hundred dollars. It was a little disconcerting, seeing what someone thought you were worth. . . But all he had to do to see real value was look over at the two sleeping men. One who had endured a beating and one who had endured having to inflict it - could he have done the same? He wasn't sure.
He envied the two men the friendship they shared, the absolute trust they placed in the other. His life had made that kind of trust difficult, but not impossible he'd discovered.
But he felt blessed to be able to watch it unfold, and wondered where it would take the two men. To a place of wholeness, he suspected, if they lived long enough to get there. He prayed they would.
The following morning
Chris woke to the sounds of voices. He pushed himself up, wondering how his bedroll had ended up on the clinic floor and when he'd laid down on it.
Glancing over at the bed, he saw that Ezra was helping Vin with a cup of what he guessed was coffee. The tracker's color was better and he was already sounding stronger - not good when it came to Nathan's chances of keeping the man in bed for more than another day.
Vin looked over at him and grinned. "Hell, Larabee, y' look like somethin' the cat dragged in."
"Yeah?" he asked. "Well, sounds like the pot callin' the kettle black if you ask me."
"Indeed," Standish agreed. "You both look dreadful. I wouldn't recommend spending any time on the streets. You're liable to frighten every man, woman and child who have the misfortune of meeting you."
Larabee shot the man a glare that had him excusing himself and escaping.
"Think y' scared him, anyway," Tanner commented. "Reckon he's right, though."
Chris nodded. "I'll talk to Nathan about us gettin' a bath up here."
"Sounds good," Vin agreed. "Cold one."
Chris nodded. It was definitely too hot for anything else. He crossed the room to the stove and poured himself a cup of coffee, then turned to ask, "You want some more?"
Vin shook his head.
"How you feelin'?"
Tanner shrugged one shoulder. "Little sore, little weak, but that'll pass quick enough. You?"
"Nate get a look at them bruises yer wearin'?"
Chris' eyes widened with surprise. "Bruises?"
Vin rolled his eyes. "I saw 'em when y' put Black's shirt on."
Chris reached up and opened the buttons on the black shirt, seeing the collection of colorful bruises on his chest. He frowned, wondering how he'd gotten them. Then he remembered the dive into the dry wash.
Nathan walked in, catching sight of the bruises on Larabee's chest. He shot a look at Tanner, demanding, "You have to beat him black and blue, too?"
Vin hesitated a moment, then burst into laughter. Chris was right behind him.
"What?" the healer questioned, then he shook his head. "Y'all think them bruises are funny? Gonna make ya sore for a week! Damn if you two aren't a pair."
Chris met Vin's eyes. Yeah, reckon we are, he thought, enjoying the amusement in the tracker's blue eyes.
Sure as hell are, Tanner agreed as silently as he friend.
Author's Note: This story first appeared in the Mag 7 zine, Let's Ride #8, published by Neon RainBow Press, Cinda Gillilan and Jody Norman, editors. When we all decided to post the stories that have appeared in the issues of Let's Ride that are more than two years old, we opted to use a generic pen name because, while Michelle Fortado is the primary author of this story, she had so much help from the other folks writing for the press that it just made sense to consider the story to be written by the Neon RainBow Press Collective! Resistance was futile. So, thanks to the whole Neon Gang - Dori Adams, Sierra Chaves, Dana Ely, Michelle Fortado, Patricia Grace, Deyna Greywolf, Erica Michaels, Nina Talbot, Kasey Tucker, Rebecca Wright, and Lorin and Mary Fallon Zane. Story lasted edited 10-26-2006. Art by Shiloh (email@example.com)