One man's past is revealed.
JD Dunne sighed wearily as he eyed the large stack of wanted posters the previous Four Corners sheriff had left untouched on the cluttered desk. A backbone wasn't the only thing the coward had lacked. Organizational skills also appeared to be beyond his capabilities.
Sneezing as dust from the dirty office found its way up his nose, JD wondered what had ever possessed him to accept the position as the new sheriff. Ducking his head, though there was no one to see his embarrassment, he knew he had taken it for the worse possible reason - to show everyone he was a man. He thought the star on his chest would win the respect of the men he admired most. The incident with Stuart James had shown him a piece of metal didn't earn respect, actions did.
Chris Larabee and the others had tried to assure him he was learning fast. But JD knew he had a long way to go before he would feel he was one of them. That day would come eventually, he silently vowed.
His attention drawn to the neglected documents, he studied the face of Black Jack Worthington. If the outlaw ever rode into Four Corners, he would not ride out again. Satisfied he would recognize the man at a glance, JD flipped to the next sheet. His breath caught in his throat as he stared at a rough sketch of Vin Tanner's face. Dazedly reading the information, he realized his friend was wanted for murder. Five hundred dollars would be rewarded to the man who brought him in dead or alive.
JD's stomach churned, threatening to purge its contents. His right hand trembled as it unpinned the badge from his shirt. While he coveted the admiration the job engendered, he had to live with his conscience for the rest of his life. He couldn't - wouldn't - bring in a man he had come to admire and respect.
He remembered the first time he had seen Vin. The tracker had been walking beside Chris Larabee, heading for the graveyard to save Nathan Jackson's life. There had been no fear on their faces as they prepared to fight a battle where they were badly outnumbered. JD could still recall every deadly shot fired that fateful day, including the one severing the rope circling Nathan's neck. He had never seen such accuracy or witnessed such courage. These were the kind of men he had traveled west to meet. The kind of men he hoped to emulate one day.
Not to hang.
Laying the badge on the desk, he rose and without a backwards glance walked out of the office. He needed a drink. Badly. Maybe after a few belts, he would know what to do. Chris and Vin had become close in the short time since they had met on a dusty street. The gunslinger would have to know the truth about his friend. JD just wasn't sure he could tell him.
This early in the day, the saloon was almost empty. Two local businessmen sat at a table downing a couple of beers with their lunch. Ezra Standish sat nearby, flipping cards from a deck with the obvious intention of enticing the men into a game.
JD headed for the bar. Pounding on the wood surface, he ordered, "Whiskey."
Surprise visible on his face, the bartender quickly poured a shot.
As he started to walk away, JD put a hand on his arm. "Leave the bottle."
Throwing the measure of alcohol to the back of his throat, JD coughed as the fiery liquid traced a path down to his stomach. His hand visibly shaking, he poured another drink. Some of the precious fluid ran down the outside of the glass, forming a pool around the bottom. Licking the excess off his fingers, JD downed a second shot. A gentle thump on his back helped the whiskey along.
"Mr. Dunne, we may not have known each other long," Ezra leaned against the bar, his eyes resting on the young man's face, "but I would never have categorized you as an afternoon imbiber."
"I'm not," JD admitted, knowing his reaction had already provided the proof, making his confession unnecessary.
"Then may I ask what has prompted your journey down the road of degradation?"
JD reached out to pour himself another drink. A red clad arm pulled the bottle from his hand and placed it out of reach.
"I prefer my questions to be answered with relative lucidity."
His mother had always told JD a burden was lighter when shared. Glancing at the two businessmen and the bartender, he whispered, "I can't tell you here. I'll have to show you."
"Since it appears neither Mr. Evans nor Mr. Reynolds are interested in a game of chance, I'm at your disposal."
A broad smile lifting his mustache, Buck Wilmington entered the sheriff's office. His grin of anticipation disappeared when he found it empty. He had hoped to talk JD into taking the afternoon off to go fishing. Amazed the young man's absence could make him feel so disappointed, he shook his head in disgust. If anyone had told him his best friend would be a kid wearing a sissified bowler hat who had less sense then a mule, he would have laughed in their face.
His best friend was Chris Larabee. Or had been before Chris' wife and son died in a fire. And before the arrival of Vin Tanner.
Jealousy gripped Buck's heart as he remembered the first time he laid eyes on the tracker. Standing at Larabee's side, Vin looked as though he belonged there. The place Buck had once occupied.
Seeing the change in the gunslinger, Buck tried to hide his envy. Chris had come back to life. However, trusting Vin to watch Chris' back was something that would take him longer to resolve.
With nothing more interesting to do, Buck decided to wait for JD. Looking around the dirty office, he knew the kid's sense of duty wouldn't allow him to stay away long. That is until ol' Buck got his persuasive hooks into him.
The wanted posters sitting on the desk beckoned. He decided it would make the time pass more quickly if he studied the faces drawn on the parchment. At least he would be ready to support JD when the kid confronted a suspect. There was no doubt in Buck's mind that day would come.
As his eyes rested on the top document, he realized that day was already here.
The door opened, crashing against the wall.
Buck's hand reached for his gun. It stopped in mid-air when his eyes encountered JD's.
"You've seen it, haven't you?" the young man accused.
Too shocked for coherent speech, Buck nodded. "Yeah."
"What are we going to do?"
"Gentlemen." Ezra glared at one man then the other. "Might I ask what you have uncovered that is so disconcerting?"
Buck picked up the wanted poster lying on the top of the pile and handed it to the gambler. A mirthless smile twisted his lips as the normally verbose man stared at the picture in mute horror.
"What are we going to do?" JD repeated.
A frown on his face, Ezra growled, "You don't seriously propose we attempt to appropriate the reward money?"
Angered by Ezra's accusation, Buck retrieved the discarded badge and threw it at him. "JD took this off. What does that tell you?"
"That our Mr. Dunne is even wiser then I originally surmised."
Face flushed with pride at the praise, JD asserted, "We gotta tell Chris."
Buck hid a grin when Ezra visibly blanched at the suggestion. He started to volunteer, certain he would regain his place at Chris' side but common sense prevailed. Instead of reuniting the two friends with the bond they once shared, the news could return Chris to the dark shadows he had inhabited until recently - until Vin Tanner had entered his life. Buck could not - would not - do that to Larabee.
"Considering the state of the office," brushing dust from the sleeve of his jacket, Ezra glanced disdainfully around, "it is possible Mr. Tanner's bounty had been recanted. Our friend could have been found innocent of the charge against him."
Crossing to the gambler's side, Buck poked a finger at the accusatory word printed beneath Vin's picture. "He's wanted for murder, Ezra."
"I can read, Mr. Wilmington."
"It's not as though someone is going to crawl out of their grave and insist it was all a mistake."
JD thoughtfully nodded. "It is possible."
"What!?" Buck shouted.
"Not what you said, Buck," JD clarified. "What Ezra said. I could send a wire to the territorial marshal asking if Vin Tanner is still wanted."
Grabbing several of the other posters, Ezra handed them to the young sheriff. "I suggest you inquire about these miscreants as well. It will alleviate any suspicion that you may have ascertained Mr. Tanner's location."
"And you better put this back on." Buck handed JD the sheriff's badge. When JD hesitated, Ezra took the token and pinned it to his chest. "Someone is bound to question why you aren't wearing it, possibly Mr. Tanner himself."
"Until JD gets a reply," Buck decided, "we keep this between the three of us."
"Agreed." Ezra and JD spoke in unison.
Wearily pushing through the batwing doors of the busy saloon, Nathan Jackson slowly made his way through the crowd to the one table where he knew he would be welcome. Buck, JD and even Ezra saw him as their friend and healer, not as a former slave or a man of color. It was the first time Nathan had been treated as an equal. He knew he owed Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner for more than just his life. They had restored his dignity. For this reason, they would always be special to him.
Flopping into a seat next to Ezra, he was surprised when a mug of beer was pushed into his hand.
"You appear to need this more than I, Mr. Jackson," Ezra noted.
Nathan gratefully swallowed more than half of the contents. Setting the glass back on the table, he revealed, "I lost, Mr. Cooper."
"The man was more 'n half dead when they brung him in," Buck reminded the healer. "Ain't much chance of survivin' a stampede."
Pulling a deck from his coat pocket, Ezra manipulated the cards with deft fingers. "No doctor--"
"I keep tellin' you all, I ain't no doctor."
"No doctor," Ezra forcefully repeated, "could have saved Mr. Cooper. His injuries were too extensive."
"I can't stop thinkin' there musta been somethin' I coulda done." Nathan rubbed his tired eyes with the heel of his hand.
The legs of his chair scraping against the wood floor, JD leaped out of his seat. "I'm goin' to the telegraph office."
A suspicious gaze followed the boy until he disappeared in the crowd. Shifting his attention to Buck, then Ezra, Nathan demanded, "What's goin' on?"
"Whatever do you mean, Mr. Jackson?" Ezra's voice dripped of innocence as he averted his face.
"Either you all are sick," Nathan reasoned, "or yer up ta somethin'."
On the pretense of scratching an itch on the back of his neck, Buck ducked his head. "What makes you say that?"
Nathan counted the evidence on his fingers. "First, there's a couple of card games goin', but Ezra ain't playin'. Second, a young lady in the corner has been makin' eyes at you Buck since I got here and you've ignored her. Third, JD has been spendin' more time in the telegraph office then his own. So, what's goin' on?"
Though he was certain he was right, Nathan was surprised when neither man tried to appease him. They looked at each other with expressions that made him wish he had never asked the question.
"We can't tell ya here," Buck explained, rising. "We'll have to show ya."
The hammer lay in an idle hand, the hole in the roof all but forgotten as Josiah Sanchez viewed the world from his lofty perch. From here, he could see everything with only a slight tilt of his head. The people scurrying in and out of the buildings, the mountains rising high in the north, and the desert stretching far to the west with the sun settling slowly across it. He wondered if this was how God felt as he looked down upon his creation.
For the second time in as many hours, Josiah watched JD hurry to the telegraph office. The action was unusual enough to bring him back to the world his body inhabited. He was still mulling over what could be attracting JD's interest when Nathan, Ezra and Buck emerged from the saloon. With the evening's activities already in full swing, their appearance was enough to make Josiah feel deeply concerned. Only a threat to his friends would draw the gambler away from a card game and the scoundrel from a woman's side.
Josiah followed them with his eyes until they entered the sheriff's office. Throwing down his tools, he nimbly ran across the roof to the ladder. Different scenarios played in his head as he climbed down, each one worse than the last. When both feet were solidly planted on the ground, he wiped the sweat from his brow with a dirty sleeve and walked the dusty street leading from the church to the jail. Long strides allowed him to reach his destination only minutes behind the three men he wanted to confront.
Surprised to find the door closed, he threw it open and entered. Nathan was sitting at the desk a wanted poster in his hand. The stunned look on his face was not mirrored by his companions, suggesting they were already familiar with the information printed on the document.
"What's going on?" the preacher demanded.
Bags under his eyes showing his fatigue, Buck softly ordered, "Close the door, Josiah."
Sanchez hesitated before complying, suddenly sorry he let his curiosity rule his actions.
Taking the poster from Nathan's trembling hands, Ezra handed it to Josiah without a word of explanation.
It took every ounce of courage Josiah had to drop his eyes. As soon as he did, he wished he hadn't. "There has to be some mistake."
"That is what we would all like to believe, Mr. Sanchez." Ezra sank into the chair in front of the desk. "And why Mr. Dunne has been plaguing the telegraph office for the last two days. He is waiting for confirmation from the territorial marshal."
"I don't need a stranger to tell me what I already know," Josiah insisted, tossing the parchment at Ezra. "Vin isn't capable of murder."
Buck leaned against the wall. "You can say that even after hearing what he did to save Nathan and seeing him in action at the Seminole village?"
"Most murders are committed out of greed or passion," Josiah softly explained. "The only reason I've seen Vin kill is to save innocent lives. That's not a murderer."
Papers fluttered to the floor as Nathan brushed his hands across the top of the desk. "I don't rightly care what that poster says or what the territorial marshal believes. Josiah's right, Vin ain't no murderer."
"Gentlemen," Ezra waved his hand in a gesture of dismissal. "What we believe is irrelevant. If the agents of the law have branded Mr. Tanner a murderer, then he will hang. Our assertions concerning his good character will not be deemed salient."
"He has to be caught first," Buck reminded them.
Ezra's lips twisted in a cynical smile. "Unless I'm mistaken, I believe Judge Travis hired us to do that very thing."
"Then," Buck straightened, "I quit."
"Amen, brother," Josiah softly added his support.
"Resigning our positions will not benefit Mr. Tanner," Ezra asserted.
Nathan's hand reached for one of the knives strapped to his back. "If ya plan ta turn Vin in fer the bounty, Ezra, you'll hafta go through me."
"Mr. Jackson," offended, Ezra rose, "I'm merely suggesting we will be more beneficial to Mr. Tanner by retaining our occupations as law enforcement officers."
Suddenly understanding what Ezra was implying, Josiah sighed. The sound echoed in the small room. "But we won't be doing our jobs if we don't arrest him."
"I for one can live with performing my duties in a less than commendable manner in this particular circumstance."
"If we quit," Nathan rested apologetic eyes on the gambler, "we'll each go our separate ways. Vin won't have no one to watch 'is back."
"He'll have Chris." There was a conviction in Buck's voice that was impossible to miss.
Josiah studied each of the three men. He wasn't surprised by Nathan's loyalty to Vin. He owed the sharpshooter his life. Buck's concern stemmed more from his feelings for Chris Larabee than for Vin Tanner. Ezra, however, completely mystified him. He would've wagered - and lost - that the gambler wouldn't do anything that would benefit someone else. Yet, here he was not only willing to forgo a five hundred dollar bounty, but eager to do so. "Six sets of eyes," Josiah softly contended, "are better than one."
The door flew open, bouncing off the wall. The glass windows rattled in their frames. JD breathlessly announced, "It's true. Vin is wanted for murder."
"Well don't broadcast it to the whole town." Buck grabbed JD's arm. Pulling him into the office, he kicked the door closed with his foot.
Silence fell as each man digested the confirmation of what they had suspected. Josiah searched his heart. He still could not believe Vin was a murderer. Those blue eyes were too guileless and his actions too charitable to be a cold-blooded killer. Josiah trusted his instincts more than he did a piece of paper.
"Someone has ta tell, Chris," JD quietly insisted.
Ezra raised his right hand. "My vote is for Mr. Wilmington."
"Why me?" Buck protested.
Imitating the gambler's gesture, Josiah said, "You and Chris have been friends for a long time."
"Your history," Ezra contended, "may prevent Mr. Larabee from shooting you."
"Or not," Buck grumbled, glaring at the gambler. "If he does shoot me, my blood will be on your hands."
"I can live with that." Ezra's gold tooth shone in the lamplight as he flashed a smile.
"I'm glad someone will," Buck hissed.
Chris huddled in the darker shadows outside the saloon, content to sit and watch the citizens of Four Corners hurry to complete their business before the black of night enveloped them. It was early in the evening. Too early for alcohol to have made a significant transformation in those who were excessively imbibing the liquid. But he'd learned one thing in the last few years, trouble came when it was least expected.
Directing his gaze towards JD, Chris saw the boy fearfully withdraw. Consciously keeping his voice soothing, he asked, "What is it, JD?"
"Buck wants ta talk ta ya." JD took another step back.
"I ain't hard ta find."
"He needs ta talk ta ya in the jail."
Puzzled, Chris' eyes narrowed as he tried to read JD's face in the growing darkness. There was fear and defiance, two conflicting emotions that often marked the boy's features. However, there was also sadness. His throat tightening, Chris slowly rose and followed JD to the sheriff's office. He felt his muscles contract, anticipating the bad news Buck was about to deliver.
Entering the jail, he was surprised to find his old friend wasn't alone. In fact the only one not present was Vin. The tracker was conspicuous by his absence. "What's going on?" the gunslinger angrily demanded, his eyes on Buck.
"Show 'im, Josiah," Buck instructed.
His face filled with a sorrow that made Chris fight back the fear closing his throat, the preacher handed him a wanted poster. Even before he looked at it, he knew whose it would be. Though braced to see Vin's face looking back at him, he was unprepared for the pain and rage coursing though him as he read the incriminating words printed on the document. "He was framed."
"You knew Vin had a price on his head?" Buck growled, the compassion on his face quickly turning to anger.
"He told me at the Seminole village."
Ezra's voice was deceptively calm. "When pray tell, were you going to enlighten the rest of us?"
"When you'd gotten ta know Vin better." Chris wadded up the poster and threw it into the stove. "When I was sure you wouldn't turn him in for the bounty."
"Was your wariness directed at me specifically?" Ezra indignantly demanded, his face flushed. "Or were we all deemed equally capricious?"
Nathan glared at the gunslinger. "Vin saved my life. Do you think I would betray him for five hundred dollars?"
"You haven't known him much longer than the rest of us." Josiah's hurt was clearly visible. "Why do you think you would see his virtue and we wouldn't?"
His gaze resting on each of the men in turn, Chris knew he had made a big mistake. Vin had wanted to tell the others as soon as they signed on with Judge Travis. Chris had insisted they wait. Now, he wasn't sure how to make his wrong right.
His mustache twisting in his rage, Buck hissed, "I guess Vin didn't care if he put one of us in the line of fire."
"Don't blame Vin," Chris hastily corrected. "He wanted to tell you. I thought we should wait."
"So, Mr. Tanner trusts us, but you don't," Ezra interpreted, crossing his arms over his chest.
"I trust you."
"With everything except Mr. Tanner's life."
Chris stared at Ezra, realizing the gambler had evaluated the circumstances perfectly. He trusted these men to watch his back, but not Vin's. He didn't understand his misgivings himself. So how could he explain it to them? He didn't know why he felt so protective of the tracker. For three long years, he hadn't cared about anybody or anything. Then he looked across a dusty street and the man he had become died, buried in a graveyard battle. The man who had given him back his life, fighting at his side.
"It's all right, Chris." The anger had disappeared from Buck's voice. "We understand."
Bewildered, Chris focused his gaze. The hurt was gone from each of the five faces. They had forgiven him, though he had been unable to speak a word in his own defense.
"Now we all know," JD hesitantly asked, "who's gonna tell Vin?"
Buck smiled mischievously. "Well, Ezra has a patrol with him in the morning. I reckon that would be as good a time as any."
"Why do I feel like a lamb being led to slaughter?" Ezra grumbled.
Words had always come easy to Ezra. He prided himself on his extensive vocabulary. So why, he silently cursed, was he finding it difficult to confess his recently acquired knowledge? According to Mr. Larabee, Vin had been willing to apprise them concerning the bounty on his head from the beginning. Which meant, Vin shouldn't - shouldn't being the operative word - be angry.
Initially, Ezra had felt intimidated by Vin Tanner. The tracker didn't have the Larabee glare or Josiah's size to terrorize an opponent. His domination was much more intangible. Something Ezra still couldn't put his finger on. As he observed the younger man, his trepidation turned to respect. At the Seminole village and against Stuart James' men, Vin had shown courage but he had also shown restraint, a sign of an intelligent man. Vin's manners and wardrobe had suggested he was a man with little or no sophistication. In the past, Ezra had equated both with knowledge. He would not make that mistake again.
"Ya been thinkin' on somethin' all mornin', Ezra," Vin softly drawled. "Ya best jus' spit it out 'fore ya bust."
Licking suddenly dry lips, Ezra confessed, "JD found a wanted poster. It had your name on it."
"I thought he might. It's why I tried ta tell Chris we should tell y'all about the bounty."
"You disagreed with Mr. Larabee and lived?"
An easy smile played at the corners of Vin's mouth. "I told 'im if he killed me, he'd have to ride this patrol with ya."
"Obviously your argument had merit."
Returning to the original topic of their conversation, Ezra revealed, "We want you to know you're safe with us."
"Knew that already. But it's nice ta hear. Thanks."
"You're welcome, Mr. Tanner."
Vin slapped his hat against his clothes to rid them of a layer of trail dust. He was tired. In the past, he had only slept when it was necessary and even then, he kept one eye open. Sleep was his enemy, leaving him vulnerable to anyone seeking the five hundred dollar reward.
Touching his fingers to the brim of his hat in acknowledgment, Vin watched as Buck continued to patrol the deserted street. The full moon made it light enough to see without carrying a lantern.
Tonight, things would be different.
After one last look around, Vin crawled into his wagon. Unbuckling his holster, he laid it so his Mare's Leg would be easy to reach from his bed. Taking off his coat and boots, he threw them into a corner. Old habits die hard. He hesitated before slipping his arms through his suspenders and dropping his pants. Committed, his shirt joined the growing pile of discarded clothing.
Tonight, he wouldn't have to go to bed fully clothed.
Tonight, he could sleep with both eyes shut.
Tonight, someone was watching his back.
Tonight, and hopefully for many nights to come, he was safe.