Author's Note: This is yet another of those pesky WIPs that have eluded my grasp for… well, a long time. I finally finished the sucker, though! My thanks to all who have never failed to encourage me and a special thank you to Kerry and Teresa, who looked it over, caught the typos, and pointed out where it didn’t work. Anything that looks wrong, therefore, is all on me. As usual it’s loaded with H/C, with both Vin and, to a lesser degree, Chris, the recipients of the pain. I hope you enjoy this, it’s going to be the last (long) story I write for a while, thanks to the constraints of that evil REAL LIFE.
Buck Wilmington stepped out of the saloon into the late evening sun, stroking thumb and forefinger over his mustache as he surveyed the dusty little town. Everything seemed quiet; had been quiet for the last couple of days. That was good, considering the fact that most of their peacekeeping force was out of town.
Nathan Jackson and Josiah Sanchez had ridden out the day before yesterday, going to visit the Seminole village. Chris Larabee, Vin Tanner and Ezra Standish had been gone for a week now, having gone to deliver two members of a border gang to the prison at Fort Laramie. They had been due back early the day before, but still hadn’t shown up. While the big man felt some concern, he wasn’t really worried. It was only too easy to be delayed on the trail.
Wilmington rolled his eyes at the overly enthusiastic greeting, delivered by the only other peacekeeper in town. He returned the greeting as he turned to face the younger man. “Hey, Kid.”
“Any sign of the others?”
“Why sure, Kid, they’re standin’ right here. Don’t ya see ‘em?” The tall brunet replied with only a little sarcasm.
Huffing out a breath, Dunne grumbled, “There’s no cause for you to be so grouchy. I just asked you a question.”
“Yeah, well – “ Buck broke off as he stared down the street. With a grin, he said, “Well, I reckon there’s your answer, now.”
JD looked down the street, smiling as he saw Ezra Standish riding along the dirt road at a leisurely pace. Then he frowned. “Where’s Chris and Vin?”
Shrugging, the older man said, “Kid, I don’t have a crystal ball so why don’t we just go ask Ezra?”
Standish looked up at the sight of two of his friends striding down the street to meet him. He hoped that their appearance didn’t signify a problem. He was tired, sweaty and dusty and he had been dreaming of a bath and a shot of scotch whiskey for several hours now. Reining in as the men came abreast of him on the boardwalk; the Southerner touched the brim of his hat and managed a smile. “Gentlemen. I hadn’t expected a reception committee.”
“Well, hell, Ezra, we just wanted to let you know we missed ya,” Wilmington teased.
“How quaint,” the gambler snorted. “I don’t suppose that longing might translate into getting you to take my horse to the livery would it?”
“Well now, ya know – “ Buck started only to be interrupted by the youngest member of their group.
“Ezra, where’s Vin and Chris?” JD asked, cutting to the chase.
With a puzzled expression, the mounted man asked, “What do you mean?”
“Chris and Vin… where are they?” Dunne tried again. “The three of you left here together… remember?”
Concern crossed the handsome features as Standish asked, “They aren’t here?”
Buck straightened, all business now. “We haven’t seen them since you all left for the Fort. Didn’t you stay together?”
The Southerner shook his head. “We concluded our business and the two of them decided that they were ready to return. I had become… involved… in a game of chance, so I elected to stay behind.”
“They didn’t mention stopping anywhere, or taking a detour?”
“No. To the best of my knowledge they were returning straight away. I believe Vin had plans with his young paramour, Miss Sadie, this evening.”
Buck frowned. Vin Tanner might get lost intentionally, taking some extra time to enjoy the wilderness before returning to town. But the man was a gentleman through and through and certainly wouldn’t stand up the young woman he had been spending so much time with over the last several months. “You didn’t see any sign of them at all? Nothing that might say they were in trouble?”
“I believe I would have mentioned that,” Standish replied curtly.
“Yeah, yeah, you’re right.” Wilmington said as way of apology. In a soft voice he continued as he scanned the sky. “It’ll be dark soon. If they’re not back by sunup we’ll go lookin’.”
The other two men nodded in agreement and the trio split up without another word. Ezra headed toward the livery, JD moved off toward the jail, and Buck stepped back inside the saloon. All three wore concerned looks, their minds filled with a single thought. Morning couldn’t come too soon.
Nathan Jackson smiled down into the beautiful face of the young Seminole woman beneath him. Rain’s dark eyes were half closed and her lips were parted as she arched up to meet him. They had been making love for hours, and still their hunger drove them on. Their bodies entwined, the lovers drove one another toward ecstasy. The air around them filled with the sounds of their lovemaking then grew quiet as they sank to the bed, panting and trembling as they found release in one another.
The big man pulled the blanket up over them both, spooning up against the woman. Brushing back her perspiration dampened hair, he kissed the delicate shell of her ear. In response, Rain sighed, a soft smile on her face.
Wrapping an arm around her trim body, Nathan relaxed, his head dropping to the pillow they shared. He felt the woman in his arms slowly go limp and knew she was sleeping. Smiling as his mind replayed their hours together, the healer prepared to join her in slumber. Then he frowned as someone knocked loudly on the door. He tried to ignore it, once more allowing himself to drift off. Then he cursed as the sound came again, more insistent this time. Grumbling, he slipped from the bed and pulled his pants on before he stepped across the little shack to the door.
“Who is it?”
“Nathan, it’s me.” Came the baritone voice of Josiah Sanchez.
Opening the door, the dark man blinked into the soft light of dawn as he said in an irritated tone, “You better have a good reason for this, Preacher.”
Blushing faintly as he saw his friend’s lack of clothing and the unmistakable form of the sleeping woman beyond, Josiah said, “I’m sorry to bother you, but I think we might have a problem.”
“What are you talkin’ about?”
Stepping back, the big man canted his head. “I’m talking about that.”
Jackson followed the other man’s light of sight and frowned at what he saw. An ancient, withered old man sat hunched over the fire, drinking from a tin cup. It was what stood beyond the man that caught the former slave’s attention, though. A pair of very familiar, black horses’ stood in full tack, heads down and looking exhausted.
Turning back to Sanchez, Nathan asked, “Where’s Chris and Vin?”
“That’s the question of the hour, Nathan. Our friend there… Manuel… approached the village just a few minutes ago, riding a burro and leading the horses.”
Shaking his head, Josiah said, “He doesn’t know. The only thing he knows is that a man approached him on the trail two or three days ago and offered to give him the horses in return for his wagon. Manuel agreed and the transaction was made. He’s heading for Purgatorio to sell them, figuring the banditos there will pay good money for such prime horse flesh.”
“More likely slit his throat and take them away from him,” Nathan replied, stepping back inside the gather up the rest of his clothes. As he reappeared, he said, “You know as well as I do neither one of ‘em would give away their horses, let alone both of ‘em at once. So what the hell happened to Chris and Vin?”
“Manuel has no idea, and he hasn’t a clue as to who sold him the horses. He can barely recall where he was when the trade was made. It was near the road between Four Corners and Fort Laramie, though.”
Giving the ancient man at the fire a closer look, Jackson shook his head. “He looks about a hundred; no way he’d have gotten the drop on them two.”
“He’s not even carrying a gun. But it’s almost a certainty that whoever gave Manuel the horses did manage to get the drop on them.”
The healer ran a hand over his face and heaved a sigh. “We gotta get back to town. Either they’re there, or we need to get the others to go find them.”
Reaching out and laying a big hand on the other man’s broad shoulder, the gray – haired man said, “There’s more.”
“Isn’t that enough?” Jackson almost lamented.
Shaking his head, Sanchez explained, “There’s blood on Vin’s saddle.”
“Damn.” The dark man started toward the picket line where their horses waited. “We need to get back there. Now.”
Josiah nodded silently and the two men headed toward Manuel, to negotiate the return of their friends' horses.
Chris Larabee pulled himself stiffly to his feet, leaning heavily against the cold wall of his prison. He still found himself getting dizzy and slightly nauseated, but it was nothing compared to before. He wasn’t certain how long he had been… wherever he was. He couldn’t remember what had happened to make his head hurt so badly, either. Truth be told the last thing he recalled clearly was leaving Fort Laramie with Vin.
He just wished to hell he knew where Tanner was now.
The first thing he could recall after riding out with his friend, was waking to darkness and pain. It had been a struggle at first to just lift his head, explosions of pain sending him back into unconsciousness more than once. Over time, though, he had been able to lift his head and even roll over on his side. That had come in handy when the dizziness and nausea had cost him the contents of his stomach. After that the next milestone had been sitting up without passing out or, at the very least, falling over.
He couldn’t help but feel a sense of accomplishment at being able to stand on his own two feet. The celebration would have to wait, though. Right now the most important thing was to find a way out of… wherever the hell he was.
Slowly, with unsteady steps as his aching body protested the forced motion, Larabee moved along the walls of his prison. He found nothing man-made, only the touch and feel of cold earth. Managing to shift his gaze upward, he saw the faintest of lights far above him. Frowning, he leaned against the wall.
Moving around the circumference of the pit he was in once more, he sought hand and footholds. If he was in a hole, he could climb out. All he needed was some way to pull himself up the steep walls.
It took some time, but the gunman found one wall with enough slant to aid him in an upward journey. Slowly, inches at a time, Chris Larabee began to crawl out of the deep hole that held him prisoner.
Buck, JD and Ezra had been on the trail for just over an hour when the sound of a single gunshot brought them to a halt. Looking around as they drew their own guns, the men saw a pair of familiar riders coming in their direction, each man leading a riderless horse.
As the five compatriots greeted one another, Buck stared at Josiah and Nathan, and then at the horses they were leading. His voice hollow with concern, he said, “Where did you find them?”
Josiah quickly related the story of how they had come into possession of the two blacks. When he finished, they all sat silently, each man trying to make sense of what was going on. The knowledge that there was blood on Tanner’s saddle darkened their moods even more.
“Ezra, do you remember seeing anyone at the Fort that might have reason to harm Vin?” Josiah asked.
Shaking his head thoughtfully, Standish said, “To the best of my knowledge there was no one that even knew our intrepid tracker. He and Chris ate dinner, had a few drinks, and retired. They left at first light the next morning. That was… four days ago now.”
“Damn it!” Buck growled, punching his fist into an open palm. “Four days… they could be almost anywhere in four days.”
“They could be in Texas,” JD observed in a pain-filled whisper.
The five men stood stock still, each of them contemplating the ramifications of Vin Tanner being taken to Texas. If he wasn’t already dead, he would most assuredly die at the end of a rope.
“That ain’t gonna happen,” Wilmington swore. “We’re gonna find ‘em and bring ‘em back home.”
Nodding in agreement, Josiah said gently, “Let’s ride.”
One inch at a time, he pulled himself upward. He had lost time and quite a bit of flesh sliding back down several times. But, finally, he seemed to be nearing the top of the deep pit he had been trapped in. He could feel fresh air drifting over the bloodied knuckles of his outstretched arms. Then, he felt it cooling his perspiration soaked face.
It took several moments for him to realize that he had reached the top of the pit; that he was free. Then with slow, painful movements, he pulled himself up and over, crawling away from the rim of the hole. Collapsing on rock strewn ground, he lay there trembling, struggling to breathe. His eyes opening to mere slits, he realized that he was staring into a distant light. After more time has passed, he realized that he was looking at an opening and the light of day beyond.
Larabee lay there for a while longer, waiting for his body to calm enough to move. He wasn’t certain what he’d do now; didn’t have a clue as to where he was. More importantly to the gunslinger, he couldn’t remember where his friend had gone. That became his top priority; finding Tanner.
Suddenly, over the pounding of his head and heart, Larabee heard a heavy footstep. He tensed, uncertain of what would happen now. Then a deep voice called out.
“What th’ hell ‘er you doin’ there?”
The world rocked with a sickening cadence. He tried to block the pain from his mind, something he had gotten very good at over the years, but it was impossible. There wasn’t a hair on his head that didn’t hurt, and the smallest toe on his foot screamed with pain.
Despite his best efforts, his eyes opened as far as they could, although that wasn’t far. His face, like the rest of him, was battered and swollen. Through the slits between his lids, he could just make out a gentle blur of greens and browns. After some serious thought, he realized that he was staring at the ground, several feet below him. He put a concerted effort into moving then, but realized that he couldn’t. Something was holding him tightly in place. With a bit more studying he realized that he was head down, on his belly, draped over a saddle. He could tell easily from the gait that it wasn’t his horse, either.
A disconnected and disconcerting surge of memories tumbled through his mind, reminding him of what had happened over the past… how many days was it? With his usual efficiency, he sorted them out and put them in order finding that, as he did, he was finally able to push some of the pain aside.
The two of them had gotten on the trail just after sunrise, leaving Ezra behind at the poker table. They hadn’t been in any particular hurry, just riding along at an easy pace. The sun was bright, warming the air to a comfortable level and the sky was a beautiful blue. They hadn’t said much during the ride, but then that wasn’t all that unusual. Without Standish along, they could enjoy the silence.
Just before the sun reached its zenith, they found a small watering hole where they could take a break beneath a few scrub trees that had latched onto the water source. The two of them stretched out in the shade, still sharing the quiet. They both saw the approaching riders at the same time and, with an unconscious coordination born of months together, they rose and returned to their horses. Each of them made certain their weapons were handy after climbing into the saddles, turning their mounts back toward the road. They didn’t know if the group of men presented a problem, but better to be on the safe side.
They were relieved that they had chosen as they had when the riders spread out, moving to flank them. Drawing their guns then, they kicked their horses into a dead run. Their pursuers quickly gave chase, and soon lead was flying in both directions.
The chase seemed to last for hours, the two of them lying low over their mounts. They had managed to send a few of the men behind them flying from their saddles, finding satisfaction in the dwindling number.
He hadn’t even been aware of the bullet that caught him in the thigh at first, the pain masked by the surge of adrenalin coursing through his veins. It was Larabee’s injury that called his attention to his own. A shell carved a deep groove in the side of the blond’s head, and Chris collapsed, sliding out of the saddle after a few yards. Reining Peso in quickly, he leapt from the saddle, only to fall to the ground with a surprised cry of pain. To his dismay he watched the two blacks running full out away from them through the red haze of agony that overtook his vision.
Dragging his injured leg behind him, he managed to cross the feet between him and the prone blond. Just as he reached his friend they were surrounded by their attackers. With a defiant glint in his eyes, he raised his head and stared coldly at them, glare going from one man to the next. Managing to keep the pain out of his voice, he growled, “What the hell do y’all want and who the hell are ya?”
They hadn’t even had the decency to answer him. Just kept him in their sites and ordered him to toss away both his weapons and Chris’. He did so grudgingly, only complying when one of them sent a bullet into the dirt not an inch from his friend’s head. He watched as they approached the two of them from all sides, malice in every one of their faces. His heart was pounding so hard that he expected it to break right through his chest, but he didn’t let on. He sat there, glaring at them with all he was worth, letting them know that they had a fight on their hands.
He’d followed through, too. Despite the leg wound that was draining his blood into the dirt; he held them at bay for several minutes. They did their best to grab hold of him and came away with cuts, bruises and even a few bite marks for their trouble. He wasn’t above fighting dirty, using anything and everything he had. But he was one man, unarmed and wounded. Soon they had him sprawled out on his belly, face smashed into the churned up earth. He still tried to fight them, but had nothing left.
He struggled, trying to see what was happening to Chris. He heard the sound of something heavy being dragged, and finally managed to catch a glimpse of two of them. They were dragging something toward an old mine entrance. No, not something… someone.
“So much for that one, he's done fer,” an unfamiliar voice said with cold disdain. “Easier to just deal with the one. Throw that ‘n on a horse, tie ‘im up good. Don’t wanna have ta chase ‘im down a second time.”
A kick to the jaw was meant to silence him. He grunted from the pain, but continued to struggle with what little strength he could find. Anger fueled him now. The sons of bitches had killed Chris and now they were dumping him into the mine like so much rubbish.
“Shut him the hell up!”
“I’m tryin’ too! Sum’bitch won’t go down!”
Something heavy hit him across the back of the head, his neck and shoulders helping to absorb the blow. It still stunned him, and he passed several minutes in a fog. When the fog cleared he found himself trussed up and sitting on a horse. Once more he found himself filled with rage, and with a growl he fought the bonds.
“Jesus! What the hell’s it gonna take to put him out? A bullet in the head?”
“Don’t you dare… don’t even think about it. You know the orders… we bring ‘im in alive, or we don’t git the money.”
Damn. Bounty hunters. Once more his past had snuck up on him, kicking him in the teeth. But even worse, Chris Larabee, a man he thought of as a brother, had paid the price. And that thought did what nothing else had been able to. Not the bullet in his leg or the beating at the hands of these strangers. Suddenly he felt the fight leave him, and he hung his head, heaving a heavy, pain-filled sigh.
Things had gone no better since then. From time to time the fire filled his belly and he fought the bonds that held him. After the third escape attempt they had bound him in an old hide, using leather straps to cocoon him in the stinking thing, they tossed him belly down over a horse and carried him like a corpse.
He was beginning to feel that it would be better to be a corpse. The pain had long ago passed unbearable, leaving him unable to move or draw a breath without it exploding throughout his body. His injured leg was swollen twice its size, straining at the heavy cloth of his pants until he expected to hear them rip. He knew that, if he managed to survive this ordeal, he’d stand a good chance of losing his leg.
‘Stand a good chance’. Tanner found himself chuckling at that. Then he managed a weak sigh and muttered, “Damn, ya idjit. Yer losin’ what little mind ya got. Reckon it’s a good thing Lar’bee ain’t here ta see ya. Be damned embarassin’.”
The mention of his friend sent a pang of sorrow through the young Texan. He should have just kept on heading for Tascosa after they’d finished up at the village. He should never have let Chris convince him to wait a few days. Damn that cocky gunslinger anyway! He didn’t know why he’d let the man sweet talk him into staying there, promising to go with him. It never seemed to be the right time; something always seemed to come up that kept them from leaving for Texas.
Maybe it would have been better if Eli Joe had hung him. Damn that blond son of a bitch anyway, coming after him and rescuing him. What the hell had he been thinking? Larabee should have let it lie… let him hang. If he had, he’d be alive now. Not rotting in some stinking, dark, deserted mine shaft. God damn him, anyway! He was always interfering with things!
Vin let go another long, trembling sigh, not even noticing the few tears that rolled upside down, from beneath his lids and along his forehead. It was foolish to be angry at Larabee. Chris had done what he thought best… he always did. And, hell, maybe he was happy now. Dead, but at peace, and not missing his family any more. In his mind’s eye, he could see the blond reunited with his wife and son.
“Jesus, Tanner, you are losin’ yer mind,” he growled just as unconsciousness claimed him once more.
Chris sat, leaning back against the cool wall of the mine, watching as the big man fixed dinner near by. The smell of whatever he was cooking came to him, sending his stomach rolling even as it growled with hunger. He knew he hadn’t eaten for some time, but the deep wound in his head kept him nauseous.
His vision was fuzzy, but he had been able to make out enough to see that the stranger who had found him was very large and very old. The gentleness with which he’d been treated told him that the man was also very kind. The stranger had introduced himself as Ephraim, and had set about tending his injury. Things were jumbled and foggy; he knew he’d probably been in and out of consciousness for some time. Now, finally, he could focus his mind for the first time since waking in that pit.
His host ladled something into a rimmed plate, adding a spoon and a biscuit before carrying it across to where Larabee lay. Squatting down beside him, Ephraim said, “It ain’t fancy, son, but it’s hot and fillin’. Don’t imagine yer in the mood ta eat much, but see if you can get some of it down.”
Nodding his thanks, Chris surprised himself by managing to eat almost half the food before nausea threatened to overwhelm him. Hastily setting the plate aside, he scurried toward the mine entrance on all fours, spilling the just eaten food into the rocks and dirt just outside. When he had finished, huddled on the ground in abject misery, he felt a big hand on his back. Slowly he was helped up and led back to where he had started. As he collapsed against the earthen wall, he felt something cool slowly run over his fevered face.
“Reckon ya ain’t feelin’ real well right about now,” the old man said softly.
Regretting the nod he gave his new found friend, Larabee managed a hoarse, “feel like shit.”
With a chuckle, Ephraim said, “Well now, that ain’t a good thing. Reckon I best find a way ta get ya into town. Hear tell there’s a healer over in Four Corners, best see if’n we can get y' there.”
Chris’ mind filled with memories, the faces of his friends and the town they had been hired to guard. Then he suddenly thought of something and asked, “Where’s Vin?”
Frowning, Ephraim asked, “Vin.”
“Vin… my friend. We were… we were riding together.”
Shaking his head, the big man said, “Son, I ain’t seen hide nor hair of anyone else. Reckon yer brains got pretty scrambled. We’ve done been through this ‘bout five times now.”
Nodding, the old man said softly, “Son, I looked all over fer yer friend and yer horses. There’s tracks, ‘bout a week old now, but that’s it. I’m sorry, reckon yer friend must ‘a bushwhacked ya an’ took off with the horses.”
“No!” Larabee replied curtly. “Vin wouldn’t do that. Something must have happened to him.”
With a kind smile, Ephraim said, “Yep… you’ve said that every time, too.”
Chris struggled to get up, but his body was too weakened by injury and the recent bout of sickness. Slumping back against the wall once more, he nonetheless said, “I’ve got to… got to go looking… for him…” as he fell back into unconsciousness.
Ephraim shook his head and said to himself, “Yep… you’ve said that every time, too.”
They were camped for the night and he had been pulled off his horse by two of the men. They dragged him over near the campfire, untying the leather strips that bound his lower body. The smell of infection assailed their noses and one of the men growled out, “shit.”
“We need ta git that cleaned up,” One of the men said unnecessarily. “We ain’t gonna git paid if we take ‘im in like this.”
Half conscious, Tanner frowned. The bounty was dead or alive, why were they worrying about taking him in, in one piece? Then any further thoughts were ripped from his consciousness as his injured leg was manhandled roughly.
They ripped the old bandage from his leg, uncaring that it ripped the wound open once more. One of the men took a knife and ripped the bloodied buckskin pants away, exposing the swollen limb. A sparse amount of whiskey was poured over the wound to wash it clean, a little more poured over that same knife.
Three of the kidnappers held Vin down as the fourth pressed the tip of the knife into the festering wound. They listened, uncaring, to the scream that split the air. They dug into the ragged hole, probing around until metal tapped metal, and then the bullet was carelessly pulled from the wound. Tanner screamed time and again, cursing them in half a dozen languages. Then, as the offending piece of metal was drawn from his leg, he became silent. With a weak groan, the injured man fell unconscious.
The sun rose in the morning sky once more, spreading its tendrils of warmth across the land. Ephraim was already up and busy, preparing to take Chris Larabee to town. He led his mule to the front of his ancient, decrepit wagon. The old man finished hooking up the animal – just as old and worn out as anything else he owned – and moved back to where he had left the wounded gunman.
Larabee was sitting up, carefully nursing a mug of coffee. He had managed to eat half a biscuit and a few bites of mush. More importantly, he had kept it all down. He squinted up as his benefactor came near, shading his eyes against the pale morning light. He could feel another headache coming on and knew that the next few hours would be miserable.
“You ready ta go, Chris?” The big man asked gently as he approached the blond.
“Guess now’s as good as later,” Larabee replied. He struggled to push himself up, frowning as Ephraim easily pulled him to his feet. The old man was deceptively strong for his age. With Ephraim's help, he slowly made his way from the mine to the waiting wagon beyond.
“All right now, easy does it. Let’s get you into the wagon.”
Chris flinched at the thought of being seen flat on his back in the contraption Ephraim referred to as a wagon. He climbed into the bed with resignation, though, realizing that he had little choice.
After the gunman was settled in, the old man pulled a tarp over the high walls of the sides, fastening it down at the corners. The injured man shaded from the sun now, Ephraim slapped his old hat on his head. Moving to where his mule stood waiting, he took the lead in one beefy hand. With a cluck of his tongue, he started off, coaxing the mule to follow. “C’mon mule, let’s go.”
The five peacekeepers rode over the open ground as quickly as they dared. JD had found signs of the two men, giving them some hope of finding their missing friends. They would have dismissed the old man that was approaching, except for the fact that he was leading an old wagon. They had no idea of who had traded Peso and Pony for a wagon or what sort of wagon they had been traded for. Turning their mounts toward the man, they rode to meet him.
The man had come to a halt and was staring up at the mounted party. Josiah touched his hat and spoke in a calm, even tone. “Good morning, sir. We were wondering if you might help us.”
“Depends on what sort ‘a help yer lookin’ fer.”
“Well, sir, we’re looking for a couple of our friends. They didn’t show up when they were supposed to. Their tracks go by near here. Maybe you’ve seen them?”
The riders had spread out as they neared the stranger, they all kept their hands near their weapons while Josiah spoke to him. The old man didn’t seem a likely candidate to have gotten the better of Larabee and Tanner, but they couldn’t be too careful.
“Well, what might these here fellers look like?”
“One’s blond, the other wears his hair long. The blond wears mostly black, the other one dresses in buckskin.”
Nodding his head thoughtfully, the old man said, “Don’t know ‘bout the buckskin wearin’ fella, but might be I can help ya out with the other one.”
With that, Ephraim moved slowly around to the rear of his wagon. He had lived in this country long enough to know better than to startle men wearing guns. Carefully, he untied the tarp and pushed it back. “Reckon this might be the blond yer lookin’ for.”
JD was the first to reach the back of the wagon. His mouth dropped open and he nodded as he turned to regard the others. “It’s Chris.”
They were all there then, hovering around the back of the ancient wagon, regarding the man sprawled out inside. Larabee lay on his back, atop a pile of old blankets. One arm was draped across his chest, the other stretched out across the wagon bed. His head lolled to one side, lips parted, the long graze visible along the side of his head.
Larabee slowly became aware of the fact that he was being observed. His movements deliberate, the blond turned to regard his friends. Squinting against the intense aching of his head, he managed a faint smile. “Howdy, boys.”
Nathan shook his head as he leaned forward to investigate the gunman’s injury. “Reckon you’ve got a helluva headache.”
“Could say that,” Larabee murmured.
Buck leaned forward now, too. “Chris, where’s Vin?”
“Don’t know. Eph… Ephraim said he wasn’t… anywhere around the… mine.”
Turning to the old man, Wilmington said, “Chances are we can find some sign as to where our other friend went, sir. Think you could show us where you found Chris?”
“Sure can,” Ephraim nodded in agreement.
“Good. Nathan, can you get Chris back to town? The rest of us – “
“I’m going on with… you,” the blond said quietly.
“Chris, you’re in no shape to go anywhere but back to town so Nathan can tend you.”
“We’ll take him with us… for now,” Jackson intervened. “It’ll be closer than taking him back to town. I’ll do what I can to patch him up while the rest of you see what you can find out about Vin’s whereabouts.”
Taking a deep breath, Buck said, “yeah, okay,” in resignation.
They traveled back toward the mine where Ephraim first met Chris. The old man was riding Pony, leading his mule and the little wagon behind. The five peacekeepers were restless at the slower pace, but made the best of it. Inside the wagon, Larabee drifted in and out of consciousness.
Reaching the mine, they dismounted. Buck and Nathan moved to the back of the wagon to help Chris. While they guided the blond to the mine entrance, Ezra, JD and Josiah began to search the area surrounding the mine. It made sense that whatever had happened to their friends had happened nearby.
The two bigger men helped the smaller one inside the mine entrance, settling him on the ground there. He slumped back against the cool, earthen wall, eyes sliding closed once more. Then he grunted with pain as the healer began probing the deep groove that ran along the side of his head. “Ow! Damn, Nathan!”
“Sorry,” the former slave said softly; automatically. “No wonder you’ve still got a headache. Looks like it very well might have cracked the skull. There’s some sign of infection but, all in all, your friend seems to have taken good care of you.”
Frowning, the blond asked, “How long’s it been? How long since I got hurt… since… since whatever happened… happened.”
Shaking his head, the big man said, “Don't know for certain. Ezra says it was four days when he got back to town yesterday, so sometime in the last five days.”
Five days? Well that was better than the week Ephraim had thought it was. But still, it was a long time. And still he had no idea as to what had happened.
The man in question rode, slumped over, on the back of the strange horse he’d been bound to for days. After his captors had cut the bullet from his leg, they had doused it with whiskey and bound it in a relatively clean cloth.
There was no fight left in him, no strength. He was burning with fever, could feel the heat sapping his strength as it radiated from the wound. He ached from head to toe, inside and out, muscle and bone. Then there was the thirst. He doubted there was an ounce of moisture to be had in his entire body. Not only had it been baked out of him by the fever, but it had been denied him most of the time since his capture. They had a strange definition of what constituted keeping him alive and in good shape.
“We’ll be there soon,” One of the men announced a short time later.
Vin managed to lift his head, staring with faint curiosity ahead of them. The spread before them was large and impressive. A large, three story house, white with blue shutters, stood in the middle of the valley below them. There were several smaller buildings scattered around it. There were two large corrals, each holding several horses. Peacocks and peahens, chickens and roosters, milled around the yard. Two or three people were seen moving from building to building, but for the most part the place seemed quiet. Even the clothes hanging on the line hung still in the midday sun.
But why were they bringing him here?
“We found some tracks, several days old. They’re heading North,” JD reported when the peacekeepers returned to the mine. “There’s also a lot of blood.”
“At least they’re not heading toward Texas,” Buck responded with a hint of relief.
“But we don’t know what sort of shape he’s in,” Ezra observed. “Nor do we know who’s taken him, or where.”
“We don’t know much,” Buck said, heaving a sigh.
“Then we need to get on the trail,” JD suggested. “The longer he’s missing, the less chance we’ll find…”
The others looked up as Dunne trailed off. Chris was shuffling unsteadily from the mouth of the mine, moving slowly toward them.
“Where the hell do you think you’re going?” Buck asked, fists on his lean hips and a scowl on his face.
“After Vin,” Larabee announced in a breathless voice.
“The hell you are.”
“The hell… I am.” The blond responded with an air of finality.
He didn’t really remember arriving at the ranch. He could barely keep a thought in his head, between the pain, fever, dehydration and exhaustion. The very fact that he was still breathing amazed him when he could keep a thought in mind that long. It seemed to him that anyone hurt as badly as he seemed to be ought to just lay down and stop breathing.
“What on earth happened to him!?”
Vin managed to raise his aching head and attempted to focus on the speaker. It was a lady… as slender as a reed, dressed in a stern, proper black dress and gray hair pulled tight against her head. She was standing on the porch of the big house, hands folded tightly together before her. He tried to see her clearly enough to recognize her, but nothing came to mind. She was a stranger.
But she was mad as a wet hen that he was in the shape he was in.
“You were told specifically not to harm him! He looks nearly dead, what on earth did you do!?”
“We’re sorry, Mrs. Fennelly.” That was the man that seemed to be in charge of the group that had taken him. The man spoke quickly, as if it was the only way to avoid bringing the Wrath of God down on his head. “He took off and we was tryin’ ta git ‘im ta stop and bullets was flyin’ and the other fella with ‘im fell off ‘is horse and he come back for ‘im an’ he was shot in the leg and he wouldn’t cooperate so we had ta subdue ‘im a bunch of times.”
“You were told not to harm him. There will be retribution for this, Cole.” Her voice was like steel, and Tanner got the impression that Cole had a reason to be worried.
“Ma’am, we tried real keep ‘im in good shape, I swear. We even fixed ‘im up as best we could.”
“Enough. Some of you get him inside and take him upstairs. Cole, find Ann and tell her she has some doctoring to do. You stay with her and be ready to get her whatever she needs to tend him.” She paused and then added, “And prepare to face the consequences if he dies.”
“Yes ma’am,” Cole said with an air of resignation.
Vin was pulled out of the saddle with more care than he had received in days. Three of the men took hold of him, two taking his arms and the third lifting his legs. He moaned, head lolling to one side as the pain of movement threatened to overwhelm him. Consciousness was fleeting as he was carried up the stairs and into the house. There the men hauled him up the stairs and into one of the upstairs bedrooms.
“Put him on the couch until we’ve got him cleaned up.” It was another female voice, but this one was softer with an accent he couldn’t quite place.
He was settled on a soft, narrow surface and felt himself drifting once more. He was drawn back to consciousness abruptly when someone began prodding at his injured leg. “Damn ‘t… stop,” he growled with tired anger.
“Settle down, son,” the woman’s voice instructed him gently. “I’m going to take a look at your leg.”
“Yes, I know it hurts. I’ve sent that moron, Cole, for some Laudanum. It’ll help take the edge off. In the meantime, I’m going to see what I’m dealing with.”
“Son, listen to me. You’re in bad shape and every second counts here.”
He moaned again as the hands returned, pulling the bloodied bandage from his leg. Unconsciously he clawed at the cushion beneath him. The pain grew more intense as the bandage was removed completely.
“Ah, sweet Jesus,” Came the voice again.
“Here’s the Laudanum, Miz Cochran.” Cole’s voice interrupted her.
“Bring it here. What on earth did you fools do to this poor boy? You were told not to harm him. It’s going to take God’s Grace for me to keep him alive at all, and it’s almost certain he’s going to lose this leg…”
As the woman’s voice berated the man, he felt himself lifted slightly and something was pressed against his lips. Cool liquid rolled down his throat, putting out a little of the fire there. There was a strange taste to the water and he realized that it was laced with Laudanum.
“I don’t have the supplies to take care of him as I should. The closest town we can find what we need is Four Corners,” she finished.
“We done the best we could,” Cole insisted.
“You’re a liar as well as a fool.”
“You’ve got no call – “ The man’s voice grew angry.
“I’m not interested in arguing the point. Get your fastest rider and fastest horse ready. As soon as I’ve given this poor soul a look, I’ll be making a list of supplies I’m going to need. And you make certain he knows the consequences if he doesn’t get back here as quick as possible.”
The voices grew quiet then and he thought perhaps he’d be able to rest now. That thought quickly disappeared in another flare of agony. He was shifted and moved, his clothes drawn from him one piece at a time. Several long moments passed in a haze of pain as he was undressed then, slowly, the opiate began to take effect and the pain seemed to drift away. The fact that he was lying there naked didn’t even register in the face of everything else.
Ann Cochran stood and rounded on the man standing, hat in hand, near the door. “Good God in Heaven! He’s black and blue from head to toe; his skin is like sandpaper… did you not give him anything to drink? Not to mention the bullet wound. It’s badly infected, I’ll be lucky to get it cleaned out without killing the boy. You’ve really done it, haven’t you? You’ve walked a fine line for years, Cole, but you’ve crossed it, now. If this boy dies, Mrs. Fennelly will have your head.”
Chris grunted as something stopped him from moving. Opening eyes he had belatedly realized were closed, he frowned when he saw that Josiah had hold of his arm. “What?” He asked in irritation.
“You were falling out of the saddle… again,” the bigger man replied, emphasizing the last word.
Looking around him, Larabee realized that the others had stopped, all of them watching him. “We don’t have… time to stop.”
“No, we don’t,” Buck chimed in, agreeing. Then he continued. “But we’re not gonna watch you die just because your stubborn pride gets in the way.”
“I’m fine,” the blond responded, his voice sounding weak even to his own ears.
“Sure ya are,” the mustached man agreed once more, before adding, “It’s not like the rest of us haven’t been passing out and damn near fallin’ outta the saddle for the last couple miles.”
Chris considered glaring at the other man, but couldn’t find the energy. Finally, in a tone of defeat, he said, “All right. I’ll go back… stay with Ephraim… you all go on.”
“We’re not gonna leave you out here alone,” Nathan disagreed.
“You don’t have a choice. I’ll rest for a while… go back to the mine… wait with Ephraim. You boys go find Vin. Bring him back… we’ll go on back home… together.”
“Chris – “ Nathan tried again, but stopped when he found himself looking at the business end of Larabee’s yellow handled Colt. His voice went up an octave, trembling just slightly as he repeated, “Chris?”
“Don’t make me… shoot you. You’re wasting time… go find Vin. I’ll… be fine.”
“Chris, be reasonable,” Josiah tried to intervene.
“Don’t have… time to be reasonable,” Larabee argued. “Go find him… bring him home. I’ll be… waiting.”
“Chris,” Buck started. Then he stopped as a bullet whipped past his head. He joined the others in staring at the blond who still held his sidearm at the ready.
“I was wrong in… trying to come along.” Larabee admitted. “I see that now. Don’t waste any more time… go after him… please.” With that, he coaxed his black toward a small stand of trees nearby.
The others watched as he gingerly dismounted and moved with an unsteady gait to drop to the ground beneath a tree. Managing to hold his head up, he raised a hand, waving them silently on.
Turning toward the other men, Buck said, “All right. Stubborn ass gunslinger or not, he’s got a point. We need to get moving.”
“But, we can’t leave him like this,” JD protested.
“We don’t have a choice. Chris is right in one thing. We’ve got to get goin’, to find Vin. We don’t know what we’re gonna be up against so we’re gonna need every gun we’ve got. Nathan, can he make it back okay?”
Heaving a sigh, Jackson said, “I think so, as long as he’s careful. That head injury is bad, but it’s healin’, his fever’s down, and there’s no sign of infection now. Mostly it’s just the headaches and dizziness that are plaguin’ him now.”
Running a hand over his face, Wilmington nodded. With resignation in his voice, he said, “All right, then… let’s go.”
Ann Cochran sat beside the bed where the injured young man lay now. She had done everything she could for him with what she had on hand. All she could do until the man got back from Four Corners was bathe the perspiration from the pale, handsome face and pray that he recovered.
She hadn’t liked any of this from the beginning, but she had learned long ago not to question Mrs. Fennelly. Since the age of 12, as an indentured servant, her lot in life had been to do the woman’s bidding. Even after the indenture had ended she had stayed on deciding that, despite the older woman’s eccentricities, she enjoyed her life on the ranch.
But this… this went far and beyond anything Margaret Mary Fennelly had ever done before. She had begun to reconsider her life choices. Perhaps it was time to bid the ranch good-bye.
“Wh… where am… I?”
Ann started at the soft, whisper light voice. Looking down at the bed, she found a pair of glassy, pain-filled blue eyes staring up at her. “You’re on the Fennelly Ranch, son.”
Brow furrowing, the injured man tried to process this information, but found himself too exhausted to do more than nod slightly. The tip of his tongue appeared, running slowly along the edge of his lips. He managed to ask softly, “Drink?”
“Yes, of course.” Ann poured a glass half full of spring water, setting it on the table near the bed. With a gentle touch she lifted the sweat-soaked head and placed a second pillow beneath it. Retrieving the glass she fed the cool liquid to the half-conscious man. “Drink it slowly, son. We don’t want you getting sick.”
The water rolled down his parched throat bringing him some relief. Soft sounds of pleasure spoke of his thankfulness as the terrible thirst that had plagued him for days slowly abated. He sighed as the glass was removed, turning his head in search of whoever had taken away. “M… more?”
“In a bit, dear, I promise,” Ann said softly as she once again stroked his fevered brow.
With another sigh, Vin slipped back into unconsciousness.
Chris had watched the other five riding away. He was torn, wanting nothing more than to follow them, but knowing that he had to be realistic about things. While he was feeling better, he was far from on top of his game. To follow his heart could wind up costing them all dearly if the others had to tend to him rather than find Vin. With a sigh, Larabee realized that he would need to keep his word and go back to the mine.
Five men rode in near silence, their moods dark as they considered their two missing members. None of them found any comfort in the thought of leaving Chris on his own while they went searching for Vin. When it came down to it, they could have easily overtaken him but in truth none of them wanted to. They knew only too well the friendship that Larabee and Tanner had forged. If they had gone against the blond’s wishes, only to find Vin dead, it would have killed the gunslinger for certain. Leaving him to make his way back to the mine alone wasn’t nearly as much of a risk.
Heat and cold chased one another over him like a pair of hawks dancing on the wind. He couldn’t quite figure out why the weather had taken such a strange turn, especially considering the fact that the sky was such a brilliant blue. He was sitting perched on the very edge of a mountaintop, looking out over the most spectacular vista he had ever chanced upon. He wasn’t certain how long he had been sitting there, as still as the stones beneath him. It seemed as if he had been there for years and yet, at the same time, it was as if he had just been born this very minute. He wasn’t certain of who he was any more than where he was. But it didn’t really seem to matter at the moment.
Ann looked up at the sound of someone entering the room, nodding at the sight of the mistress of the house entering the bedroom. She had expected this visit for several hours, surprised that it hadn’t happened before now. With a tight-lipped smile she acknowledged the older woman with a simple, “Ma’am.”
Nodding in return, Margaret Fennelly stared down at the young man lying in the bed. He was frighteningly still and she found herself watching each rise and fall of his trim, muscular chest. In her typical, blunt manner, she inquired, “Will he live?”
Her gaze going to her patient, Ann said, “I’m not certain… not yet. He looks to be a strong young man, and that’s in his favor.”
“But?” Margaret knew the younger woman well; she could read the word on the slender features.
Taking a deep breath, Ann said, “But, he was treated badly for days before he arrived.” She went on, telling the other woman about her concerns for the young man’s leg and the fever that raged within him.
Fury filled the gray-haired woman’s face. “If he dies, I’ll see that every man involved is punished. I’ve waited far to long to be reunited with him… they have no right to ruin the homecoming I’ve planned for so long. No one will take Michael from me… not again.”
Chris woke with a start, angry with himself when he realized by the position of the sun just how long he had slept. Pulling himself stiffly to his feet, he moved to where Pony stood patiently waiting. A moment later the two of them were moving in the direction of the mine. While his heart still screamed at him to go after the others, he did what he knew he had to. He would just have to rely on the others to find their missing friend.
If they found him.
Shaking that thought off, the blond nudged Pony a little faster. They would find him and he would be alive.
Night fell, forcing the five men to stop their search. They made camp and settled in, still far more quiet than they normally were. Not even JD had much to say, the young man having taken the lead in tracking their missing friend. He had worn a serious and focused expression all day as he found signs of the trail that they all hoped would lead them to Vin.
They all sat around the campfire, each man staring into the darkness, as if he were alone there. The mystery of just who had taken Tanner and why weighed as heavily on their minds as the thought that they might not reach him in time.
The sound of someone approaching rang out in the still night air. Each man reached for his gun, watching the darkness for signs of movement. It was quickly clear that, whoever it was, they were doing their best to keep as quiet as possible. The men tracked the faint sounds of movement; the man was moving toward the horses.
With stealth born of living in dangerous times, the five peacekeepers moved into action. Buck and Josiah moved to flank the stranger, while the other three held back, listening for any indication that he wasn’t alone.
Watching the man approach the picket line, Buck moved softly forward, resting the barrel of his pistol at the side of the man’s neck. “Can we help you, mister?”
The man’s arms went up, moving away from his sides. With an audible gulp, he stammered, “I… my… my horse p-pulled up lame about… about a mile back. I’ve got… got to get back… if I don’t… I’m – I’m a dead man. I’ve got to get back with… with the supplies. Ya don’t… don’t under-understand.”
“Then perhaps you can enlighten us, brother,” Josiah said, his voice soft but hard-edged.
“I… I’m headin’ for Four Corners for… for s-supplies. If I don’t get back w-with ‘em… an’ that feller dies… I’m gonna be – “ he cut off with a grunt when Buck pressed the barrel of his gun harder into the man’s neck.
“Who? Who is it?”
“I don’t know!” The man whined plaintively. “All I know is he’s r-real important ta… ta Miz Fennelly. I’ve g-gotta git this stuff an’ git back… or it’s… it’s my hide. Ya gotta help m-me out here. My h-horse… it threw a… a shoe. I just n-need ta borrow a… horse. Okay? L-look, I can p-pay – “ He moved to reach into his pocket, only to have the gun barrel pressed even harder into his neck. He felt a trickle of blood as it dug into his flesh.
“Don’t move… not even an eyelash. Now, just who the hell is this Mrs. Fennelly, and why’s this fella so important?” Buck couldn’t say why, but he could feel it in his bones. Something was telling him that the stranger this man had been sent to find help for was Vin.
“I don’t know! All I know ‘s she s-sent us ta fetch ‘im. Only he got hurt… and if he d-dies, she’s gonna – gonna have my head!”
The two peacekeepers exchanged looks. Then Wilmington said, “Well, you’re in luck, mister. It just so happens that we’re travelin’ with the healer from over Four Corners way. So why don’t you just calm down, an’ take us to this important fella.”
Chris finally found his way back to the mine just as the moon was starting its descent toward the horizon. The opening was dark and he saw no sign of Ephraim. Lowering himself gingerly from Pony’s back, he groaned, leaning against the big gelding as he gathered his strength.
“What’re ya doin’ back here, son?”
Raising his head, Larabee saw the old man coming from the mine entrance. “I was slowing them down,” he said in a hoarse whisper.
“They leave ya ta come back alone?” Ephraim said in a displeased tone as he reached the man. Placing a hand on the trembling frame he added, “Don’t them fellas care ‘bout you a’tall?”
“They care… they just didn’t have a… a choice,” Chris mumbled as he dropped back against the black horse.
Shaking his head, Ephraim said, “Well, let’s get y' inside so ya can rest.” Gently he pulled the man up and led him toward the mine.
“Horse,” the gunman muttered as he started to pull away.
“I’ll take care ‘a the horse after I take care ‘a you,” the old man reassured him. “Now, come on. Yer about out on yer feet.”
Ann sat back, wiping the back of her hand across her forehead to brush back the loose hair that had fallen there. She looked down at the young man, shaking her head. She was amazed that he had survived the night. Blinking tired eyes, she glanced over at the window, seeing the first tell-tale signs of dawn. At a soft moan, she turned back, watching the perspiration soaked head tossing and turning on the pillow. Tenderly stroking a hand through the long, brown locks, she said softly, “It’s all right son, just rest easy and let me take care of you.”
She smiled as blue eyes opened to a narrow slit, searching for her. Cupping her hand against his cheek, she said, “Sh, you sleep now.”
“Hurts… Ma… Mama,” he murmured in a lost, pain-filled voice. “M-make ‘t… stop.”
“Sh, I know it does darlin’ boy. Just hang on… just rest and I’ll take care of you.”
“Take… take care… of me…” Tanner whispered as he slipped back into unconsciousness.
Ann watched the face relax; saw the hint of trust in the finely chiseled features. Her heart went out to the badly injured man and she prayed that she would be able to follow make good on her words.
Carefully drawing back the sheet, she examined the man’s wounded leg. She had done her best to draw out the poison, but infection still swelled the ragged hole. Glancing up into the peaceful features, she silently apologized before she began once more to purge the wound. The slender body beneath her hands tensed, flinching and twitching as she forced the wound to once more drain. After long hours of pain, he was too weak to do anything more. As the wound continued to ooze the putrid fluid, she reached out and stroked the pale face once more. “I’m sorry, boy. I’m so, so sorry.”
They kept a close eye on the man as he guided them toward where he told them the “real important fella” had been taken. He sat atop Milagro, JD taking on the headstrong Peso after he had bucked the stranger off a second time. None of them said much, each man lost in thought. Was the injured man Vin? If so, how badly was he hurt? Had Chris returned to the mine all right? Just how were they going to make it through all this whole and intact? Could they remain, as Jock Steele had dubbed them, “The Magnificent Seven”?
They topped a rise and their reluctant guide nodded toward the big house below. “Fennelly ranch. That’s where he is.”
Nodding, Nathan said shortly, “Let’s go.”
They followed the man down the gentle slope, warily watching out for attack. The sun was only a hint of light on the Eastern horizon and only a few people were moving around the big ranch. The movement stopped when the six riders drew near. One of the men stepped forward, frowning at the only familiar member of the bunch. “McCord, you was just supposed ta bring supplies.”
Pointing toward his horse that limped along behind him, the man called McCord said, “Horse pulled up lame. I come across these fellas, but we’re in luck.” Pointing toward the big, black man, he said, “This here’s the healer from over Four Corners way. He’s gonna take a look at that feller and see can he patch ‘im up.”
Morris Cole shook his head at the other man’s stupidity. Without warning, he drew his sidearm and shot McCord out of the saddle. Before the others could react, he aimed the weapon at the big, mustached man in front. “Don’t even think about it, fellas.”
The five peacekeepers sat completely still, their hands held away from their own weapons. Buck ran the tip of his tongue across his lips before speaking. “Now look here, we ain’t lookin’ for trouble. We just heard y’all had a badly wounded man and we thought we’d see if we could help.”
The single shot had brought more a dozen other men out of the bunkhouse, each of them carrying at least one weapon. They surrounded the group of riders, facing them down as Cole motioned for them to give up their weapons. “Give ‘em up, boys.”
Looks of frustration crossed the five faces as they disarmed themselves. They all stared at the man who held a gun on Wilmington as their weapons were confiscated by one of the others. Soon they sat, unarmed and vulnerable, still staring at the man who held a gun trained on them.
“Mister,” Nathan said in an even voice, “You’ve still got a wounded man here, if that man’s to be believed. Like he said, I’m healer and I might be able to help.”
Cole considered the man’s offer and nodded after a full moment. Calling to his men, he said, “The rest of ‘em go into the cellar. Milt, Case, make sure they stay put.” Waving his gun in Nathan’s direction he said, “You, come with me.”
He stared out at the broad vista before him, the scene wavering as the heat grew. He reckoned it must be close to noon since it was getting steadily hotter. He thought he’d heard his mother calling his name, but there didn’t seem to be anyone up here with him so he decided it must have been a trick of the wind.
He drew a breath, but the air burned his lungs. He thought about moving into the shade, but his body felt incredibly heavy all of a sudden and he found it impossible to move. Panic overtook him and he began to struggle against the lethargy of his body.
Ann leaned forward, pressing her hands against the young man’s shoulders, trying to keep him from hurting himself even more. “Calm down, boy, calm down. It’s all right, now. Sh, calm down.”
“Ma’am, can I help?”
She jumped at the sound of the strange, deep voice behind her. Looking over her shoulder, she saw a large, dark-skinned man standing in the doorway. “Who are you?”
“Name’s Nathan Jackson. I’m a healer.” He moved into the room, Cole behind him, a gun pointed at the broad back.
“Cole? What the hell have you done now?” Ann said angrily.
“Him and his friends come ridin’ up on… on their own,” the man lied. “We got the drop on ‘em. The others are in the cellar.”
Ignoring the man, Ann turned to Nathan. “Are you any good?”
Looking directly into the woman’s eyes the former slave said, “Yes ma’am, I am.”
Seeing the resolve in the warm, brown eyes, Ann nodded. “Then get over here and help me.” For the first time since she had set eyes on the injured man, she felt the glimmer of hope that he would survive this ordeal.
Chris blinked his eyes open to the familiar ache and the blur that had been his world for so many days. He was worn out, exhausted from the previous day’s foolhardiness. He rolled his head to the side, searching the dim interior of the mine for his benefactor. There was no sign of the big man, so he called out, “Ephraim?”
A couple of moments later he heard the now familiar footsteps, and the now familiar voice said, “Well, it’s about time you woke up.”
“How long I been asleep?” Larabee asked.
“Not that long. Sun’s just been up an hour or so.”
“Yer friends?” When the blond nodded, Ephraim replied, “No, nothin’ yet.”
Larabee sighed and slowly pushed himself up against the mine wall. Rubbing a hand over his stubble marked face, he said, “I suppose it would be too early for them to have found anything. But…”
Nodding, Chris said, “Yeah, I hoped.”
“He must be a good friend… this fella you’ve been lookin’ fer this whole time.”
Larabee drew a deep breath. How did he define his relationship with the scruffy buffalo hunter? They had been riding together for months, but he felt as if he had known him for years… a lifetime even. How did he explain that, in one look he had read – and had been read by – the other man? Had known Tanner’s soul even while his own soul was known by the Texan. How did you explain that to anyone?
That was simple. You didn’t. Couldn’t.
“Yeah, he’s a good friend.” Chris said softly.
Nodding, the old man moved toward the cook-fire and prepared to make breakfast for the two of them.
Nathan wiped his sleeve across his forehead, swiping away the perspiration that insisted on dripping into his eyes. He and the woman had been working over Vin for hours, doing their best to save the young man’s life. Tanner had been unconscious the entire time, kept there by doses of Laudanum and his body’s exhaustion. They had done their best to clean out the festering wound then resorted to packing it with the tiny, white maggots that the healer used from time to time.
Since then they had been doing their best to bring down the fever that tried to consume the injured man. Cole and two other ranch hands had been kept busy bringing up buckets of water for them to bathe the slender, trembling body with. They slid cool cloths over his chest, arms, neck and face. They coaxed his mouth open and got him to take a few sips of the chilled liquid as often as they could. Through it all, he remained unaware of their fight to keep him alive.
Buck sat on an upturned barrel, staring at the faint outline of the cellar door. They had found a single lantern, lighting it to keep them from having to suffer their imprisonment in darkness.
Nearby, JD sat on the hard packed dirt floor, knees against his chest and head resting on crossed arms. He had drifted off to sleep, the warm air lulling him into a doze.
Josiah sat on one of the bottom steps of the stairway, legs stretched out in front of him. He leaned back against the higher steps, arms folded behind his head as he contemplated the darkness of the ceiling above them.
Ezra sat on a crate, an upturned barrel before him while he played solitaire near the lantern. He looked up, taking in Buck’s intent expression. “Have you come up with a plan to get us out of these abominable accommodations?”
“Ain’t thought of a thing,” Wilmington admitted. “Can’t think of a way for us to get out of here that doesn’t end up gettin’ Nathan and Vin killed.”
Sighing, the Southerner said, “Neither have I.”
Both men turned toward the oldest member of their little band. Sanchez didn’t return their look, but said, “Doesn’t seem to be much we can do… other than offer up a few prayers.”
“For ourselves?” The mustached brunet asked.
“And for the others.”
“Think it’s actually Vin they took Nathan to doctor?” Buck pondered.
“It doesn’t make sense that strangers would be so… protective of him,” Ezra stated.
“Unless…” Wilmington trailed off.
“Unless?” Sanchez prompted.
“Unless they’re bounty hunters.”
“They aren’t,” Josiah stated firmly.
“How can you be so certain?”
“Whoever owns this place is more than likely well off. The five hundred dollars that Vin would bring them simply wouldn’t be worth it,” Ezra observed.
“Then what the hell’s goin’ on here?”
“That, Brother,” the former preacher said softly, “is the question of the hour.”
Nathan sat beside the bed, watching the slow rise and fall of Vin’s chest. The woman had left a few hours before, going to her room to rest. There was at least one man outside the door, but not close enough to see his expressions He still wasn’t over the shock of seeing the younger man lying there so still. The sight of his infected limb had been even more of a shock. The evidence of his mistreatment sent tremors of anger through him, but years of his own mistreatment allowed the former slave to conceal those feelings when others were around.
He had no idea of why these people had Vin, if they were responsible for his current condition, or if they had any idea that he knew the injured man. Until he knew the ‘lay of the land’ he needed to play it ‘close to the vest’ as Ezra would say, not letting on that he knew the injured man.
Tanner moaned softly, his head moving back and forth on the damp pillow. The tip of his tongue appeared briefly, running along the edge of dry lips. His eyes slanted open, then closed before he moaned again. A pain-filled whisper begged, “waaaa… ter?”
Gently Jackson lifted his friend’s head up slightly and tipped a glass against parted lips. “Take is slow.”
Sandy brows furrowed as the familiar voice pushed its way through the fog. The Texan’s head rolled toward the voice, eyes struggling to open once more. “Naaa… Nath… an?”
“Shh. Yeah, it’s me. Now you just rest easy, we’ll take care of you.”
Trust evident in the weak voice, the injured man managed only, “O… kay.”
The former slave watched his friend drift back toward unconsciousness as he settled him back on the bed. Setting the glass aside, he gently bathed the fevered face and adjusted the coverings over Tanner’s well honed body. It was only then that he heard a soft sound behind him and realized that they weren’t alone. Turning toward the noise, he saw Ann standing just inside the door.
Cochran came into the room, closing the door behind her. Moving to the other side of the bed, she kept her eyes on the dark-skinned man. Her face was difficult to read, her emotions held in check. “You know him.”
It wasn’t a question. Realizing that she had heard enough to know that he and Vin were acquainted he nodded shortly before turning his attention back to Tanner. “Yes, ma’am, I do.”
Ann prided herself in being able to read others. Looking the tall man up and down, she saw both compassion and dedication. No matter what happened, she was certain the healer would continue to make the man in the bed his priority. Waiting until he glanced up, she allowed herself a small smile. “That will be our little secret, then.”
Smiling in return, Jackson said, “Thank you ma’am.”
The lady of the house was making her way around her large, impressive home, checking things as she did every morning. As she turned the corner, going to the back of the house, she saw a sight that perplexed her. Two of her hands were standing on either side of the cellar door, each of them holding a rifle. Lifting her skirts slightly, the older woman stormed across the yard, coming to a stop in front of two guards.
“What on earth is going on here?”
The men suddenly found that the ground had become extremely interesting. Staring down at it, neither of them replied.
Tapping her foot impatiently on the hard ground, Mrs. Fennelly rapped out, “I’m waiting.”
“We… well, that is… Cole… he… he…” One of the men stammered.
“He tol’ us ta st-stand guard… ma’am,” the other hastily added.
“Stand guard over what?” The older woman’s tone grew hard.
“Them… them fellas that come here last night.”
“What ‘fellas’? And answer me quickly, I’m growing tired of playing guessing games.”
“Them fellas that McCord brung back with ‘im. They—they come f-from Four Corners. One of ‘em’s a h-healer. Cole took ‘im up t-ta tend that man, an’ tol’ us ta watch th’ others.”
Setting her balled fists on her narrow hips, Margaret Mary Fennelly glared at the two men. “Have they posed any sort of threat?”
“Than get them out of there, now!”
“But Cole said – “
“As much as he would like to believe otherwise, Morris Cole is not in charge here. Now, release those men and take them to the parlor; stay with them until I’ve had time to find out why they were out here. I’ll not have guests mistreated… at least not unless I find they might cause a problem. Have breakfast brought into them. I’ll come to speak to them as soon as I’ve checked on…” She paused and glanced toward the upstairs window where the injured man lay, fighting for his life. Then, returning her gaze to the two cowhands, she went on. “I’ll be back downstairs to meet with these gentlemen in half an hour. I expect to find them fed and comfortable, is that clear?”
“Yes ma'am,” the men responded meekly.
Without another word, the woman turned on her heel and strode toward the house.
“Chris, ya ain’t rested near enough. Ya look ‘bout as wore down as a man can be and still be breathin’.”
“Ephraim, I’m fine,” Larabee muttered as he concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other. His destination was his horse, if he could just get there, he was certain that the rest would prove to be easy.
“Y’are not! Boy, yer ‘bout as done in as a feller can get. Now, you c’mon back ta the mine – “
“Ephraim, I appreciate all that… you’ve done. But… I need to go find… my friends.”
“Ain’t gonna do ya a whole lotta good, iff’n ya fall on yer face, dead.” The old man pointed out.
Reaching his horse, the blond tightened the cinch and took up the reins. He found himself concentrating just on the simple act of lifting his left leg high enough to shove it in the stirrup. Finally managing it on the third try, he gripped the saddlehorn tight and pulled himself up into the saddle. He sat completely still for nearly a full minute, waiting for the dizziness to abate.
It didn’t make sense. He’d been hit in the head before, the pain and dizziness had never lasted this long before. He attempted to push the symptoms of his injury aside, tried to force them to submit to his stubbornness. When that failed, he took a deep breath and tapped his heels into the big, black’s sides.
The gunman hadn’t gone more than a mile before he heard the sound of someone coming up behind him. Tensing, his hand on the butt of his gun, the blond reined Pony in. A few minutes later he watched as Ephraim rode up on his mule. He peered at the old man, finding it impossible to focus as he said softly, “What are… you… doing?”
Shaking his head, Ephraim said, “Damned if I know, son. Damned if I know.”
True to her word, Margaret Fennelly appeared in the doorway leading to the parlor half an hour after the four men had been released from the cellar. She found them enjoying her hospitality, although there were looks of puzzlement on each face.
“Good morning, gentlemen. My apologies on your… your less than comfortable accommodations last night. I trust that these are more to your liking?”
Nodding, Buck responded, “A site better, Ma’am.”
“We do find ourselves confused, however,” Ezra chimed in, “as to why we spent last night in your cellar.”
“Believe me, sir, it would never have happened, had I known. I fear that my foreman believes himself more in charge than he truly is. I assure you, it will be addressed.”
“How’s our friend?” Josiah asked, hoping to hear whether the injured man might be, indeed, their missing man.
“Mr. Jackson is fine, I just left him. He is tending to… someone… quite important to me at the moment.”
“A family member, perhaps… or a valued employee?” Standish question.
“Neither,” Fennelly replied, then added with a tone of suspicion, “you seem to be very curious as to their identity.”
Shrugging, the Southerner said, “Just making conversation, ma’am.”
Not convinced, the woman responded with “Perhaps we would be better off conversing on why you gentlemen were nearby.”
“We had business north of here,” JD added his voice to the conversation.
“What sort of business, might I ask?”
“Private,” Buck chimed in. He made no effort to hide the fact that he didn’t trust this woman at all.
Margaret looked him over, finally nodding briefly. Then, pasting a smile on her face, she added, “Well, I hope that you gentlemen enjoy your breakfast. I wouldn’t want to detain you, however, so feel free to leave at any time.”
“Thank you, ma’am, but we’ll wait for our associate to finish tending to the person upstairs.” Josiah’s blue eyes held a challenge, daring the woman to argue with him.
Margaret Mary Fennelly simply held his gaze for a few seconds before responding flatly, “Very well. I suppose we can put you up in the bunk house if necessary.”
Smiling, the former preacher said, “that won’t be necessary, ma’am. We’re fine right here for now. I believe I’d like to check in with our companion, Mr. Jackson, and see how long he expects to be.” He rose from the chair he’d been seated in, towering over the slender woman.
Undaunted, Mrs. Fennelly said, “Very well, I shall send for him.”
The four men watched the lady of the house leave before turning to one another. Buck looked at the older man beside him, and asked, “What happens next, Josiah?”
Scratching his chin thoughtfully, Sanchez replied with, “That is the question, brother. That is the question.”
Nathan watched his friend and patient tossing and turning weakly on the bed. The fever was still on the injured man, leaving him delirious and confused most of the time. As the former bounty hunter began to moan, he retrieved the rag he had only laid in the bowl of water a short time ago. Wringing it out, he began once more to stroke it over the flushed features.
The healer turned to see Ann Cochran at the foot of the bed. Nodding to her, he said only, “Ma’am.”
“Your friends are downstairs, in the parlor. They would like to see you, and find out how long you expect to be.”
Jackson heaved a sigh at the news that his friends were no longer being held prisoner. He had no idea of what to tell them, however. Every minute Vin fought was a good sign, but he as far from well. He could still die.
“Yes ma’am, I heard you.” He stood, stretching the cramped muscles that protested being still for so long. He moved toward the doorway, his eyes locking with Ann’s. “Can you stay with him, ma’am?”
Nodding, the woman said, “I’ll do my best to keep him comfortable.” Then she reached out, laying a hand on his arm. With a warning tone in her voice, she said, “Mrs. Fennelly has no desire for anyone else to know who’s up here. I know that you’re all friends, and I won’t say a word. Just remember, if she thinks you’ve given away his identity… “
Reading the threat, he paused, trying once more to figure out what was going on. Then he nodded and left the room. Behind him, Ann Cochran moved to where Vin lay, taking up the rag and bathing him with the cool water.
The fire was growing… drawing closer to him. He wanted to move, but couldn’t find the strength to get his limbs to cooperate. Every breath he managed to take drew more heat into his lungs, until he felt as if he were being consumed from within as well as without. He tried not to look, but couldn’t help himself. He could see nothing but flames, no matter which way he looked. The fire was so close that he could feel the hair on his face and arms singe.
He had to get away… had to find a way beyond the fire. Then he called on the one person he had learned, finally, to trust. Taking as deep a breath as he could, he opened his mouth and screamed loud enough to be heard above the roar of the fire…
Ann watched as the delirious man began to mumble. She leaned forward as a single word – a name – passed his lips, escaping in nothing more than a whisper.
Ephraim frowned as he watched the blond beside him. Larabee straightened in the saddle he’d been slumped in for hours. The gunslinger looked around him, as if he were studying something.
Chris felt a pull, an unnamed something calling him in one direction. He had learned to listen to that ‘something’ and paid heed to it now. Nodding slightly left of the trail they were taking; he coaxed his horse forward as he called to his companion. “This way.”
Four heads turned at the sound of someone entering the parlor. The two men guarding them turned as well, watching as the tall, dark healer entered the room. The other peacekeepers stood and quickly met their friend.
“Nathan, you okay?” Buck asked, his compassionate blue eyes regarding the other man critically.
“I’m fine, nothin’ to be worried about.” Jackson met those eyes with serious brown ones, trying to convey his message to the others without creating more risk to them all.
“What’s goin’ on? Who’s upstairs?” Josiah danced around the question they all wanted to ask, sensing that they needed to tread lightly.
“Fella’s got a bullet wound in his leg… it turned sour, so we’re tryin’ to get the poison out and his fever down.” Brown eyes bored into each set that watched him, trying to convey the need for secrecy. “You fellas okay?”
“We’re fine. Think that… that fella’s gonna make it?” Buck asked. He watched Nathan for any sign that might tell them the man’s identity.
“Don’t know,” Jackson replied, sorrow taking over his face. “We’re doin’ all we can.”
“We?” Ezra asked, uncharacteristically quiet.
Nodding, the former stretcher bearer said, “One of the ladies livin’ here is real good at doctorin’. The two of us have been workin’ on him ‘round the clock. She’s been stickin’ real, real close.”
The others nodded briefly, letting him know that they were getting the picture. Buck’s attention went to the men at the door then swung back to his friend. “Seems like the folks ‘round here are real good at stickin’ close.”
“Yeah, don’t seem like a man can spit without someone knowin’. Look, I need to get back upstairs to tend to that man. Maybe y’all ought to see about headin’ on back to town.”
“Think we’ll wait right here, so we can all go home together,” Ezra said in a determined tone.
Heaving a sigh, the dark man nodded, knowing there would be no arguing with the others. Truth be told, he was relieved at the thought of not being left in this place, alone with the injured tracker. Giving them a brief smile, he turned and headed for the door.
“Good luck with… the injured gentleman,” Ezra remarked as the former slave crossed the threshold. They all watched their friend nod, not turning back toward them as he moved out of sight.
“Chris… please… h-help me… hot… so hot. Wh-where… where are ya… Cowboy?”
Ann watched as the young man continued to toss and turn, his movements growing weaker by the moment. She was more and more concerned that, despite their best efforts, the young man wouldn’t recover from his injuries. Squaring her shoulders and drawing her resolve around her like a cloak, she wrung out the damp cloth and began stroking his feverish brow. As she did she began speaking in a soft voice, hoping that some part of it would get through to the man.
“It’s all right, son, it’s all right. You’re safe here, it’s just the fever. Lie still and try to relax. I know it’s hard, and I know you’re weak and confused, but you need to try and listen to me. I know you’re hurting but we’re working as hard as we can to make you better. Sh, now, it’s all right.”
He heard the sweet voice, even though he couldn’t make out the words. There was someone nearby, someone who wanted to help. Was it his Mama? He looked around, but could find nothing but flames anywhere he looked. It was just a trick of the flames, the wind, or his mind. Whatever it was, he couldn’t rely on that voice to help him. There was only one person he knew he could count on right now.
Just as they topped the rise, Ephraim saw Chris jerk, stiffening in the saddle as he seemed to be watching for something. He frowned, trying to decipher what the younger man was responding to. “Chris… Chris?”
Blinking as he was pulled from his thoughts, the blond turned and focused on the older man. “Yeah?”
Frowning, wondering how he could answer that question, the blond said, “Yeah, I guess so. Just a bit tired.”
“Why don’t we rest fer a bit, then?”
Shaking his head as he peered at the valley below, Larabee said, “Don’t need to, we’re here.”
Scratching his whiskered chin, Ephraim studied the other man. He couldn’t figure out the man’s strange behavior; wondered just what was going on with him. “How do ya figger that, son? Some sort ‘a message from the heavens?”
With a tight smile, the blond shook his head. “No, just… just a hunch.” He broke off as he felt himself nearly sliding from the saddle.
Reaching out to steady the other man, Ephraim said, “Whoa there, boy, let’s git ya off’a that horse an’ let’cha rest a bit.” Seeing the protest forming, he added, “we’ll git the lay ‘a the land ‘fore we go down yonder, but fer now, yer gonna rest up ‘fore ya pass out on me.”
“Yeah… all… all right.”
Chris slid from the back of his horse, feeling the old man grab hold of him as he touched the ground. His knees started to buckle but he held himself upright, clinging to his saddle. Forcing himself to take a slow, deep breath, he waited until the dizziness passed before moving away from the big black. He felt the old man’s hand on his elbow, and let himself be led to the nearest tree. There he slumped to the ground, sighing as he relaxed against the trunk.
Ephraim tended the other man’s horse and his mule then settled on a fallen tree. He was positioned so that he could watch the house below and the man nearby. He studied the blond, uncertain of what he had witnessed during their ride. At first he had just put it down as the head injury that continued to plague Larabee. But the man seemed to be listening and reacting to something… or someone… that he could neither see nor hear.
“You got something to say?” Larabee broke the silence, not bothering to open his eyes. He could feel the old man’s eyes on him.
“Jist wonderin’, son. Y’all act like yer bein’ guided by somethin’. Jist wonderin’ what it is.”
Shrugging, Chris tried to put it in words. “It’s just… a… a sense I guess.”
“Sense ‘a what?”
“Man ya been lookin’ fer?”
The blond nodded, groaning as he regretted the action. “Can’t explain it any clearer than that. I’m not really hearing him. It’s just… a sense that he’s… nearby… that he needs… that he needs help. Guess it sounds pretty crazy.”
Smiling, Ephraim said, “I’ve heard ‘a crazier. Reckon if’n ya got a friend that close… ya ought ta be thankful.”
Chris smiled but didn’t answer. With another sigh, he sank into the oblivion of unconsciousness.
Nathan entered the room, finding Ann sitting beside the bed, tending to Vin. She was singing, so softly he didn’t hear her until he was close beside her. He recognized an old lullaby and couldn’t help but smile at the thought of Vin Tanner being calmed with a song used to calm infants.
Ann Cochran looked up at the sound of someone behind her, blushing slightly as she realized that the healer had heard her singing to their charge. Ducking her head, she murmured, “Just trying to keep him comfortable.”
Watching the injured man lying quietly on the bed, Jackson replied softly, “Well, it seems to be workin’ ma’am.”
Heaving a sigh, Ann shook her head. “I think he’s just worn himself out, fighting the fever.” Looking into the compassionate, dark eyes, she added, “I don’t believe he has the strength to do otherwise. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t sell him short. He’s a strong man.” Nathan disagreed. “Although I wish I had… the others up here to help me out.” He had almost said “Chris” instead, but didn’t want to alert the woman that there was someone else anywhere nearby. He had witnessed it often enough, that mysterious ‘something’ that was between Larabee and Tanner. He didn’t understand it, but didn’t question it. It had managed time and again to keep one or the other of the men alive when they should have died.
“That would most likely mean a death sentence for you all. Anything that Mrs. Fennelly perceives as a threat to her plans… well, she won’t let anything stop her from getting what she wants.”
“And just what does she want from Vin?”
Ann shook her head, once more refusing to meet the man’s eyes. “That’s not for me to speak of.”
Taking a chance, the black man took hold of her arm. “Ma'am, I need to know why she wants Vin… what she wants with him. If there’s something I can do to keep my friends out of jeopardy, I’ll do it.”
She read the warning in the handsome face, knew that it wouldn’t take much for it all to fall apart. Steeling herself for a fight, she replied, “I wouldn’t make threats, Mister Jackson… not that you can’t back up with action.”
His smile turning cold, the former slave replied, “I don’t ma’am. I don’t.”
A moan from the bed ended the sparring match as both participants turned to the delirious man. Nathan knelt beside the mattress and reached out to check Tanner’s pulse. “Take it easy, Vin. You’re okay, just rest, we’re gonna take good care of you.”
He heard another voice. This one deep and soothing and familiar. He tried to grasp onto who it was, but it was too hard to think. If only the world wasn’t on fire, he might be able to concentrate. He stared into the yawning maw of heat and flame, praying he could find a path through the fire; a way to freedom. Finding nothing but more flames, he felt the last vestiges of hope disappear. Seeing that there was no escape, he simply stood still, waiting for the fire to claim him.
Chris woke to a feeling of urgency. Blinking to try to clear his vision, he pushed himself up, struggling to his feet. He looked around, finding Ephraim still sitting nearby. The old man stood and marched over to where the blond was on his knees, preparing to stand.
“Boy, where do you think yer goin’? ya ain’t been asleep more’n an hour.”
“We need to go, Ephraim… I… I need to go… don’t have much… much time.”
“Chris, ya ain’t in any shape ta jist ride down there. We don’t know fer sure that’s where we need ta be. Ain’t seen hide nor hair of yer friends. This could be the wrong place all together.”
Getting his feet under him, the gunslinger stood with one hand braced against the tree he had been sleeping against. Willing the dizziness away, he pushed away from the tree and stumbled toward his horse.
“Boy, yer bound and determined ta git yerself kilt. What if this is the place they took yer friend? They sure‘s hell ain’t friendly, now, are they?”
Pulling himself into the saddle, the black clad man didn’t answer for nearly a minute. Then he grated out, “Guess there’s only… one way to… find… out,” before spurring his mount forward.
Cursing under his breath, Ephraim strode angrily over to his mule, mounted, and rode after the stubborn man.
Arnie Wyatt stood at the edge of the porch, his rifle cradled in his arms. Leaning against an upright, he spit a wad of tobacco into the flower bed below. He couldn’t understand why women set such store in flowers. It seemed like a waste of time to him. Looking out across the broad yard, the ranch hand frowned as he watched a pair of riders approaching in the dusk. One, big and old from what he could see, sat astride an old mule. The other one, dressed all in black, was draped forward over his horse.
Curiosity pulled the man upright, and he stepped forward, watching from the top step now. He couldn’t help but feel nervous, even though neither man looked like a threat. All of the others were either inside, watching those other men, or out in the cookhouse, eating dinner. He considered calling for backup, but realized how stupid that would make him look if the riders turned out to be nothing more than what they seemed to be. Fear of being teased and taunted by the other men kept him quiet.
The two riders came to a stop near the porch. The one in black never moved, still draped over his horse like he was dead or dying. Arnie addressed his words to the other man.
“Whatta'ya want, ol’ man?”
Nodding toward Chris, Ephraim said, “Well son, I found this here fella on th’ trail, ‘bout a mile from here. Figgered he mite belong here.”
Shaking his head, the ranch hand said, “Don’t recall Miz Fennelly hirin’ no gunman.”
Scratching his chin and looking thoughtful, the old man replied, “Well, if’n he don’t belong here, I wonder where ‘tis he does belong.”
“Don’t know, and it ain’t none of our concern. Reckon ya best take ‘im on outta here. Man like that, don’t pay ta be too close to ‘im. Best ya take ‘im back where ya found ‘im and leave ‘im there.”
“I don’t think so.”
Wyatt turned his head in shocked surprised as the man he thought half dead rose from where he lay draped over his horse, as if he’d been summoned by the angels. Before he could even wrap his mind around that fact, he found a Colt pointed at him.
“L-Look… f-f-fellas…” He stammered.
“Shut up,” Larabee said softly. “I’m looking for my friends. They in there?” He nodded shortly toward the house.
The stunned man jumped as he felt the rifle being lifted from his arms even while his sidearm was pulled from its holster. Turning he blinked rapidly, mouth hanging open, as the old man took his weapons from him.
“I asked a question,” Chris hissed.
“I… I… reckon so. There’s f-four fellas in… in the parlor and another one upstairs, t-tendin’ a… a… a hurt fella.”
Larabee turned toward Ephraim. “You take care of this one, I’m going in to see just what’s going on.”
Nodding, the old man watched Chris re-holster his gun and climb down off his horse. All signs of the weak and injured man had disappeared, replaced by a calm, cool gunman.
Willing himself to remain upright, Larabee climbed the stairs, heading toward the door. As he passed the sentry, he glared at the man, inwardly enjoying the sight of the man cowering back.
Going to the door, he pushed it open carefully, unwilling to announce his entrance. Slipping inside, he closed the door, standing near it as he let his eyes adjust. His vision was still blurred, but he could make out the general detail of the house. He was facing a broad staircase, the entire house quiet. Focusing on a closed door to his right, he decided to start there.
Slipping across the hallway, he moved to the door. Listening for a few seconds he was rewarded by the sound of JD Dunne, telling one of his gawd-awful jokes. Rolling his eyes, Larabee reached for the doorknob.
Despite the fact that he was responding to his young friend’s jokes with comments deriding the kid’s intelligence, Buck Wilmington was listening and watching for any chance of escape. His eyes focused on the doorknob when he caught a glimpse of movement there. “JD, I’ve told you before, you couldn’t tell a joke if your life depended on it.”
“Buck, you’re just jealous…”
The rest of Dunne’s comment escaped the mustached man as he watched the door open just a crack. Glancing up, not giving himself away to their guards, he caught sight of a small portion of a very familiar face. He stretched up to his full six foot plus height, a frown on his handsome visage. Suddenly wheeling on the smaller man, he growled, “Boy, I’ve had enough of your stupid jokes! Why don’t you just sit down and shut up!”
JD recoiled in shock at his friend’s sudden change of mood. He flinched as Buck slapped at him with his hat. “Buck, what the hell!”
Wilmington’s actions had the desired effect. The two men who had been watching them focused on the fight, oblivious to anything else. They did nothing more than to straighten on the chairs they were sitting in. Neither of them heard the door open.
“Boy, you think we got nothin’ better to do than sit there an’ listen to them stupid jokes day in and day out. You make my mustache hurt!” The ladies man continued his tirade, watching his old friend’s progress out of the corner of his eye. He continued dressing down the befuddled easterner until he registered the fact that the blond had a Colt pressed to one of their guards’ necks. Wheeling suddenly, a broad grin plastered on his face, Buck reached out and grabbed the rifles from the two men. “Thanks, boys, reckon I’ll just take these.”
Staring in shocked anger toward his friend, Dunne said, “Jesus, Buck, you could have said something!”
Shaking his head, Wilmington didn’t respond to the brunet. Instead he turned toward the blond, and said, “Well, howdy, stud. Nice of you to drop in.”
“Can’t I leave you boys for five minutes?” Chris shoved his Colt back into its holster, and shuffled into the room. He could feel his energy waning and didn’t want to fall on his face in front of the others. Moving with determined footsteps, he headed for the nearest chair and slumped to the seat. Blinking to clear his vision, he watched the others go into action. Buck had relieved the others on their weapons while Ezra found their own guns locked away in a cabinet. Josiah was at his side in a heartbeat, offering him a drink of water.
“How… How’d you boys get yourselves… in… in this fix?”
“Reckon our minds were on findin’ Vin and not where they needed to be. We rode right into the place… sort ‘a like that time at Royal’s. Only this time we wasn’t expectin’ the welcome we got.”
“Yes,” Standish added as he returned each weapon to its owner. “The gentleman in charge of these miscreants is seriously in need of a lesson in loyalty.”
“Ezra, my head – “ Chris grumbled.
“Damn bastard shot his man outta the saddle and got the drop on us.” Buck translated.
Nodding his understanding, Larabee asked, “Where’s Nathan and Vin?”
“We know for certain that Nathan’s upstairs and we’re pretty sure he’s tending to Vin.” Josiah explained.
“Pretty sure?” Pale brows furrowed as the gunman tried to take in all of the information.
Nodding, the bigger man continued. “We still don’t know what’s going on. Our friends aren’t saying, and the lady of the house is rather… rather vague on details.”
“But now that we’ve got the upper hand, we can find out just what’s going on,” Wilmington offered.
“Okay, Buck, you and JD take care of these fools and give Ephraim a hand out on the porch. Ezra, Josiah, let’s go check upstairs – “ Chris pushed himself up off the chair, only to slump back down with a grunt.
Placing a hand on the man’s broad shoulder, Sanchez said, “Why don’t you stay here? We’ll go find the others.”
Shaking the hand off, Larabee pushed himself up a second time, this time keeping his feet. Managing a glare through the fog that insisted on clouding his vision the blond said, “Let’s go.”
“Chr… isssss.” The call was nearly soundless, but Nathan knew instinctively who the former bounty hunter was calling for. He squeezed the cool water out of the cloth and stroked it over the dry, overheated flesh. He knew they needed to get more water into the ill man; otherwise he’d die from dehydration before his injuries could kill him.
“I wish we could do more,” Ann whispered softly, watching despair overtake the healer’s features.
With a single, sharp nod, Jackson agreed, “So do I ma’am… so do I.”
They both turned toward the door at the sound of the door opening behind them. The woman’s expression turned to one of shock and panic, while the man’s spoke eloquently of relief. They both watched as Chris crept across the threshold, Josiah behind him.
The blond spoke to his companion without turning around. “I’ll stay here with Nathan and Vin, you and Ezra go help take care of the help.”
“I’ll be saying a prayer as I do,” Sanchez’s voice rumbled softly as he turned to go back the way he’d come.
Ann sat as still as a statue, her gaze never leaving the blond man. As he drew nearer she saw the way he stared at the young man in the bed beside her. Suddenly, for no reason she could understand, she knew. “You’re Chris.”
Ignoring the woman, the blond managed to make it to the bed. He nodded gratefully when the woman moved aside and he sank wearily onto the chair. One trembling hand reached out, and he took the too-warm one lying limply on the bed. Leaning forward, he said softly, “Vin, I’m right here, Pard. I’m right here.”
Ann and Nathan watched as Tanner’s ashen face turned slightly toward his friend. Twin nail’s breadths of blue appeared, and the young man seemed to be responding to that soft voice. Another breathless whisper cried out, “…ris…”
“Right here. I’m right here, Pard. I’m right here. You’ll be all right, Nathan’s here. He’s gonna take care of you. You’re gonna be okay.” Chris continued to murmur the gentle words, doing everything in his power to will strength into the body of his friend. Tanner grew still, his hand still entwined in Larabee’s. A sigh escaped parted lips as his body relaxed.
Shaking his head, Nathan continued bathing the man’s face. Pouring more water into a glass, he lifted Vin’s head and slowly fed him a few sips of the cool liquid. Managing a smile when the injured man swallowed the water, he looked across the bed to where Ann stood. Catching her eye, he said, “Reckon this is all the ‘more’ we need.”
Buck smiled and leaned back in his chair, looking out across the expanse of the Fennelly land. Behind him he could still hear the occasional, muttered curse, but didn’t pay any attention to it. It had been ridiculously easy to get the drop on the hired men, who had been lax in watching for trouble after bringing them down before. They hadn’t counted on Chris Larabee.
The bunkhouse door opened, Ezra Standish stepping out onto the porch with the bigger man. “Good lord, the stench in there is abominable,” he muttered as he fanned a hand in front of his face.
Smiling, Wilmington said, “Why’d ya think I volunteered ta come out here and keep watch?”
Shaking his head, Standish replied, “Well, I won’t go back in there without a loaded gun to my head. I thought it might be prudent that I make another trip through the main house to make certain none of the miscreants is hiding out in there.”
“Not ta mention that you’d like to check out the safe and the lady’s jewelry box.”
Snorting and rolling his eyes, the Southerner tipped his hat and strolled across the wide expanse of lawn. As he neared the porch, the door opened, causing him to respond unconsciously by triggering his shoulder rig. He greeted the figure that emerged with a Derringer.
Margaret Fennelly stopped short, staring wide-eyed and open-mouthed at the young man standing before her. Recovering quickly, she barked out, “What are you doing out here?!”
Smiling so that the sun caught his gold tooth, the grifter responded, “Simply having a look around, madam.”
Grossing her arms across her chest and glaring down at the man, the woman stated, “You were all supposed to remain in the parlor with my men... keeping you company.”
His smile fading, Standish returned her glare with one of his own. “You and your men have someone we care about tucked away here. We have come to reclaim our associate and return him to our number. You, madam, are lucky that you are a woman, otherwise you would be enjoying the same accommodations that your hired men are.”
“Cole!” Fennelly called out sharply. “Cole!”
“I’m afraid he’s busy at the moment, nursing a rather painful headache.” Standish informed her, relishing the memory of overtaking the ranch foreman which resulted in the man sustaining a very painful head injury as the result of JD’s gunbutt connecting with his rather thick skull.
Margaret Mary stormed to the edge of the porch and stomped down the wooden steps, her heels striking a sharp staccato. She came to face the green-eyed demon who had invaded her home. Staring hard at him, she ordered, “You release my men and get off my property, now, young man!”
“My apologies, madam, I’m afraid we won’t be complying with your instructions.” Taking hold of her arm, he spun her around and started marching toward the house, the woman having no choice but to stumble along after him. “Now, my good woman, you shall come with me.”
Ann Cochran started as she heard the commotion below. She moved toward the door, only to have two of the three men in the room, stop her. Chris Larabee pointed his sidearm at her and called to her to stay where she was. Then Nathan Jackson came over and grabbed her arm, steering her, none to gently, back toward the bed. The big man pushed her into a chair, his dark eyes no longer showing compassion.
Glaring from one to the other, Ann said, “You can’t keep me in here. That’s Mrs. Fennelly down there – “
“You’ll stay here and stay quiet about it,” Chris ordered in a soft voice. Then turning toward the former slave, he said, “Nathan, go see what’s going on.”
Nodding, the bigger man stole from the room.
His attention seeming to be on Vin only, Larabee nonetheless kept his gun trained on the woman. She kept her eyes fastened on him, waiting to see if he made a mistake. She sat, posture rigid, on the chair, hands knotted in her lap. Between the two of them, Tanner lay, oblivious to what was going on around him.
Fennelly continued to yell and curse at the man as he dragged her up the steps and back into the house. She struggled to get away from him, but found her strength no match for his. As they entered the house she saw Cook, peering from the kitchen door and called out to the woman, only to watch her quickly disappear. The man dragged her toward the staircase, and began his ascent, not seeming to care that she was faltering. Suddenly the Negro that claimed to be a healer met them about halfway, shaking his head as he watched the two of them coming toward him.
“Lord, Ezra, you don’t have to treat her like she’s your mother.”
Frowning up at the taller man, Standish retorted, “Believe me, I’d have treated her much harsher if she were.”
Folding his arms across his broad chest, Jackson asked, “Where you takin’ her?”
“To her room, or some other accommodation where we might restrain her,” Ezra replied. “She may be elderly and a woman, however one never knows from where a person might gain strength.”
“She’s a threat and we’ve got to lock her up, yeah, I guess you’re right.”
“You wouldn’t dare!” Margaret Mary screeched indignantly. “I’ll have you all arrested for this! You’ll swing for it! The arrogance!”
“Exactly, madam,” Ezra growled as he and Nathan pulled her up the last few steps. “Exactly.”
They moved from door to door, until they finally found one that seemed to suit the woman between them. Ushering her past the threshold, Standish kept her in place, his gun pointed at her, while Nathan searched the room. It took more than half an hour to complete the search, but he was finally content that there was nothing in the room that the woman could use as a weapon.
Nodding toward the other man, Jackson said, “I think it’s safe, but reckon we’d better keep an eye on her.”
“I’ll be happy to stay with the lady of the house for the time being,” Ezra drawled as he dropped onto the chair in one corner of the room, still keeping his Derringer trained on Fennelly.
With a slight smirk, the bigger man shook his head. “Leave it to you to take on the comfortable jobs.”
Standish grinned cockily, then sobered. “Nathan… Vin… how is he?”
His expression darkening, Jackson informed him, “he’s holdin’ on. It seems to be helpin’ that Chris is with him. You know how those two are.”
Nodding in agreement, Standish replied, “Yes, I believe we’ve all beheld that special bond between them.” He sighed, looking down at the manicured nails of one hand. In a soft voice he nearly pleaded, “Take care of them both, Nathan.”
“I’ll do my best,” Jackson said as he left the room, closing the door behind him.
Turning his attention back to the woman who now sat on the edge of her bed with rigid primness, he said curtly, “Madam, it might behoove you to unburden yourself of the truth. Pray, what is it that you found so fascinating about our associate that led you to have him kidnapped and nearly killed?”
“I never wanted him injured!” Margaret Mary responded tersely.
“Ahhh, but you did wish him kidnapped,” Standish replied evenly.
Glaring at him coldly, Fennelly responded, “You have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Then please, madam, enlighten me.”
Mrs. Fennelly sat as silent as a statue for several minutes, giving no indication that she would speak. Then, finally, she said in a quiet, weary voice. “I only wanted to bring my Michael home.”
Frowning, the Southerner asked, “Michael?”
“Yes… my son. Your ‘associate’, as you call him, was the only way to bring my son, Michael Fennelly, home.”
When she stopped, Ezra urged her on. “And how was Vin expected to do that?”
Wiping a tear from her eye, the woman explained, “He was to be the ransom for my son. I… I was contacted several weeks ago by a man calling himself Yates… Bernard Yates. He said he could bring my son home to me, for a price. If I brought Vin Tanner to him, Michael would be returned to me. It’s been so long… so long…” She trailed off, suddenly looking very old and very fragile.
Leaning forward, Standish’s mind spun as he recognized the name Yates. Managing to keep himself calm, he coaxed her back from her memories. “Where did Michael go, Mrs. Fennelly? What happened to your son?”
“He… he left here… at the beginning of the war. He said that it was his duty. I didn’t… I didn’t want him to go. He was my only son. My only child. The others… all of his brothers and sisters… died when they were little more than babies. Only my sweet Michael lived. I begged him, but… he felt that he had to go… to do his duty. But…”
“But, he… he never came home. I waited and waited, but he never… never came back.” She broke down, sobbing now.
Ezra stood and handed her a handkerchief. Then he returned to the chair, sitting quietly while she wept a mother’s brokenhearted tears. Watching her grief, Standish tried to fathom what Yates, if it truly was the phony marshal who had instrumented what amounted to Vin Tanner's kidnapping, had in mind. They had all assumed that Yates was still locked away, along with the rest of Eli Joe’s cohorts. Deciding he would need more information, the gambler sat, showing a calm he didn’t feel, waiting. It was nearly half an hour before she was able to compose herself enough to go on.
Dabbing at her eyes with the now soggy handkerchief, Margaret Fennelly continued in a rough, exhausted voice. “When Mr. Yates contacted me, he told me that your friend is a wanted killer and that by helping him bring Tanner to justice, he would in turn help me by bringing Michael home to me.”
“I would doubt that that was all Yates asked for,” Standish replied.
Shaking her head, Mrs. Fennelly said, “He asked for a thousand dollars, as well. He said it was ‘expense money’.” Looking intently at the man who was questioning her, she said, “I would give, or do, anything to bring Michael home to me.”
“I believe, madam, that you already have.”
“Well, she's done worse 'n that, fer less,” came a voice from the doorway. Ezra recognized the man who had been caring for Chris. “Ephraim, I could have shot you!”
“Please do,” Margaret said, venom returning to her tone.
“Ah, Maggie, I see ya haven't softened a whit.”
“My name is Margaret... or, Mrs. Fennelly.”
Ephraim laughed in response, but there was a hard edge to the sound. “Mrs. Fennelly. You'll keep my name, keep my home, but ya won't have a thing ta do with me.”
“Excuse me?” Ezra asked no one in particular as he starred from one to the other. “The two of you... you're...”
“Maggie here was my blushin' bride forty years ago, son,” Ephraim explained. “We had a good life, built up this spread to about what it is now... although she's made some changes in the last six years. Haven't ya Maggie girl?”
“I told you--”
“Oh woman, just stop it!” The man turned his attention to Ezra then, blocking her out. “When the war ended, she 'bout went out of her mind, waitin' for Michael. I told her, time and again, that he was more 'n likely gone, since he hadn't tried to contact us for so long.”
“NO! Don't you dare say that! Michael is alive!”
“Things got to be more 'n I could take around here, so I took ta spendin' most of my time out at the old mine. Finally, after we had us the worst row of our lives, I figgered it'd be better if I just stayed gone.”
“You deserted me! You deserted our son!”
“I deserted nobody, girl, you deserted our marriage long before I left this house, and you know it.” He shook his head and returned his attention back to the gambler. “This is the first time I've been back in this house in six years. Swore to myself I'd never come here again, but... when Chris showed up and all... well, I knew I had ta come back and take a hand in puttin' things right.”
“What do you care? You don't care about Michael... you don't care about me. All you ever wanted to do was to take the easy way out of things. It's easier to believe that our son is dead than bring him home.”
“And where is it that this Yates told you that Michael was, madam?” Ezra asked.
“He... well, he didn't. He simply told me that he could bring him home, as long as I was able to deliver Vin Tanner to him.”
“And just where was this exchange to take place?” When the woman didn't respond after a long moment, Ezra tried again. “Mrs. Fennelly, where is the exchange to be?”
“Maggie, you answer the man, and you answer him now!”
With a steely eyed glance at each of the men, she said, “In two days’ time... right here.”
“Ah, hell,” Ezra muttered. “Ephraim, I will entrust the care of your wife to you, I must inform my companions of this.”
“Go right on ahead, son,” Ephraim said. Then with a glitter in his eye, he said, “But make sure ya knock 'fore ya come back in. Me and Maggie here, we might just be... renewin' our marriage vows!”
With a chuckle, Ezra ignored the woman's angry retort and left the room.
“So, Yates is using this woman to get Vin?” Buck asked when Ezra had filled him in on what was happening. “How does he even know about this Michael Fennelly and his mother, and her search?”
Shrugging, Standish said, “I have no idea, however I do believe her. I believe that this poor, deluded woman has been taken advantage of by Yates in order to once more abscond with our compatriot.”
“He's only worth $500.00, Fennelly's willing to give him a thousand. Why go to all of this trouble?”
Josiah scratched his chin. “Perhaps revenge?”
“Vin, all of us, we were responsible for his incarceration. What if he want's payback for that. Ride in here, carry Vin off to Tascosa away from the rest of us, collect the $500.00, add it to the thousand he's paid by Mrs. Fennelly...”
“He gets his revenge, Vin's dead, he's off Scot free and rich.” Ezra finished.
“That makes sense, but it still doesn't tell us how Yates found out about Fennelly.”
Josiah's piercing gaze turned toward the bunkhouse, where the ranch hands were being held. “Perhaps we might find some answers in there.”
The gambler turned pale at the thought of returning to the bunkhouse. “I believe I'll leave that to you gentlemen, while I go inform our other comrades of the situation to date.”
Slapping the smaller man on the back, Buck chuckled, “you go on ahead and do that, Ace, we'll let you know what we find out.”
Chris looked up briefly as someone entered the room but, as soon as he saw it was Ezra his gaze returned to where it had been; on Vin. “Thought you were keeping the lady of the house company.”
“I left her husband to do that,” Ezra said, laughter in his voice. When he got the desired effect; Chris staring at him opened mouthed, he explained.
At the end of the other man's tale, Chris shook his head. “I'd never thought in a hundred years that those two...”
“If you had seen them before all this ugliness,” Anne chimed in, “well... you'd not have seen it then, either. Mrs. Fennelly was always full of grit and iron, but at the same time a lady. Mr. Fennelly was always easy going, laughing, and far too easy on those who would wrong him. If he said they built this spread up together, well, he was here, but it was she who did most of the work.”
“You don't sound very fond of Ephraim,” Chris noted.
Heaving a sigh, Anne said, “I love the man like my own father. He treated me more as a daughter than a servant. But... well, he wasn't here when it counted. Since he left, that abominable man has taken more and more advantage of Mrs. Fennelly's distraction.”
“Well, perhaps now things can be put right,” Ezra suggested.
“I hope so,” Anne said softly. “I hope so.”
“Meanwhile, we need to get ready for Yates,” Chris said, changing the topic of conversation. “Ezra, I need you to get a lay of the land. Figure out where we need to be, to take care of Yates and his men.”
“I will take care of it immediately.” He touched the brim of his hat and turned to leave, but Anne stopped him.
“Please, I can help. I know every inch of this property.”
Considering her words briefly, Chris nodded. “Go with Ezra, then.”
As the two left the room, closing the door behind them, Chris sighed and leaned back in the chair. His head was pounding and he felt nauseated, but he wasn't about to move away from his friend. As Vin stirred weakly on the bed, he leaned forward and placed a hand gently on the other man's arm. “It's okay, pard, you're gonna be fine.”
The door opened again, this time admitting Nathan into the room. His face was fixed in a frown. “Just passed Ezra and that Miss Cochran; he said Ephraim's watching Mrs. Fennelly and we've gotta get ready for Yates? That's who's after Vin?”
Chris nodded and filled the other man in on the rest. “I wish now that I'd killed Yates, too.”
“We'll take care of him, now,” Nathan said with conviction.
“Let's hope so. I never felt like we got the whole truth from him the last time. Thought he could have given us something to help clear Vin. Maybe this time...”
Nathan didn't say what he was thinking. Right now, it was still questionable as to whether or not they'd even be taking Vin out of this room alive, Vin was no longer perspiring which meant that the man's body was shutting down. All he did say was, “Let's hope so.”
The flames were closer, he could feel the flames singing the hair on his arms. Looking around, he could see nothing but fire in every direction. There was nowhere to run. Then, he heard something. A voice, soft, but at the same time he could hear it over the crackle and hiss.
Larabee startled, looking up into the pain-filled face. Tanner had called out to him, he had heard his name as clearly as anything. “Vin?”
Tanner moaned, moving on the bed, head turning as if looking for something.
“Take it easy, pard, you're safe. Me and the boys are all here, nothing more is gonna happen to you, understand? All you have to do is focus on getting better.”
Nathan, dipping a rag into the tepid water, watched as Tanner stilled, turning toward the other man's voice as if listening to him. “Keep talkin', Chris, damned if he ain't listenin' to you.”
Nodding, Larabee continued, “Vin? Listen to me. It's gonna be fine now. We're here, Nathan's taking care of you, and we've got the yahoos that hurt you locked away. So the only thing you've got to do is to work on getting well.”
Chris! Chris was there, just beyond the flames. He could hear the other man, but couldn't see him. He tried moving closer in the direction he'd heard Larabee, but the flames pushed him back. With a curse, he slapped at his smoldering shirt sleeve. He kept looking for a way through, a place that would offer less of a chance to burn to death. Then, just beyond the wall of fire, he could see the other man's silhouette. Taking a chance, he backed up as far as he could, took off at a run, and leapt through the fire, calling out as he did, “Chris!”
“Vin! Nathan?” Chris watched as, suddenly, his friend bowed up off the bed, slammed back to the mattress, and began to twitch and thrash uncontrollably for several minutes before he once again quieted. “What happened?”
“Fever's too much for him to fight, it's a seizure. We've gotta find a way to cool him down.”
The two men turned to find Ephraim in the doorway. Nathan asked, “Where do we get ice?”
“We've got an ice house. We can bring as much of it as we can carry up here.”
“No, how far is the ice house?” Nathan asked.
“Hund'rd yards or so past the house.”
Pulling back the tangled bedding, Nathan gently lifted Vin into his arms. Settling the man as comfortably as possible, he said, “Take me to it. Chris bring some of the bedding.”
They were quickly out the door, Ephraim leading the way. As they went, he assured them that his estranged wife was safely tucked away in their bedroom, behind a locked door. As they rushed out of the house, onto the porch, they nearly ran into JD, who was just coming up the steps.
“We're heading for the ice house, Kid,” Chris explained, none of them breaking stride. JD fell into step behind them, taking the bedding from Chris, who was beginning to look pinched and pale again. By the time they arrived at the low, concrete and wood structure, Larabee was leaning against the smaller man, panting as if he had been running.
Entering the dark building, they waited until Ephraim lit a lantern, shining it so that they could navigate the steps, which after a few feet, were carved out of the ground itself. All of them felt claustrophobic as they moved down under the ground, the air around them growing cooler and cooler as they did.
A small room, not much larger than the bedroom they had just left, was filled half full of large blocks of ice, carved from the frozen mountaintops. Nathan found a low bench and laid Vin on it after having JD drape the bedding over it. Tanner, stripped to his long johns as they fought to cool him down, began to shiver a short time later, the cool air dancing over his fevered body. Chris knelt beside him, not thinking about the cold earth beneath his knees. “Vin, it's gonna be okay, hear me? It's gonna be okay.”
A cold breeze blew through the flames, which had circled him once more. He couldn't understand it, it was almost as if he hadn't moved. The flames were all around him, and he could hear Chris somewhere beyond the circle. “Chris! Cowboy, help me! I cain't find my way outta this place!”
Was it hell? Had he died and gone to hell? He had long ago resigned himself to spending eternity in the fiery depths, but hadn't banked on it being this soon. He dropped to his knees, shoulders bowed in defeat as he waited for the flames to consume him.
He knew that his energy was ebbing and that, soon, he'd either fall on his face or have to leave Vin's side for some true rest. He wasn't certain how long they'd been in the ice house, but it didn't really matter. Time didn't matter. Nothing mattered, other than making Vin well.
He'd been holding Tanner's hand in a loose grip, the fingers warm and lax within his hold. Reaching out with his other hand, he clasped it on one of the shivering shoulders. “Vin, you've got to keep on fighting. I know you're tired, pard, but you've got to keep on. I'm not letting you go, you hear me? Don't you give up!”
He looked up as he felt it. A pressure on his shoulder, as if someone was gripping it. Looking around, he called out, “Chris?” Then he stared, open-mouthed as he realized that the flames were receding. “Chris!”
“...issss?” The sound was almost too soft to hear, but Larabee did hear it. He looked up, watching the other man. It hadn't been his imagination, he just knew that it wasn't.
“Vin? Listen to me, pard, keep fighting. Don't you dare give up, you hear me?”
“C...ssss...” Tanner called out again.
“I'm right here, pard. We're all here with you. Come on now, you've got to fight this.”
Slowly, heavy lids lifted just enough to reveal a sliver of blue. The injured man moaned, nearly overwhelmed by his injuries. “Oo... sick...”
Chris and Nathan carefully shifted the tracker, who suffered through a bout of vomiting, followed by a painful round of dry heaves. By the time he settled once more, he was limp and drenched in sweat. Jackson smiled at this fact. “Fever's broke. We need to get him out of here now, before he gets too cold.”
The trip back to the bedroom was both jubilant and trying. Chris, having gone far past the end of his strength, leaned heavily on Ephraim for support, while JD helped Nathan with Vin. As they exited the ice house, Buck jogged over to see what had happened, and took the older man's place beside his old friend.
“Stud, you need to take better care of yourself,” Wilmington sighed as he took more of Larabee's weight. When they gained the upstairs, Nathan and JD took Vin back into the bedroom he had been in earlier, while Buck and Ephraim led a protesting Chris into another bedroom.
“I'm fine... I need to be... there when he wakes up... I'm fine.”
“I swear, if I have to belt you, I will. Nathan's takin' care of Vin, you need to take care of yourself. You can't do him, or anyone else, any good if you're wore down. You need to be ready when Yates gets here, Chris. Now, if I have to, I'll tie you down to the bed.”
Chris heaved a frustrated sigh, but stopped arguing. Deep down he knew that the other man was right. He needed to rest. It didn't make it any easier, though, to admit that, even to himself. “If he needs me... you... call me,” he muttered as the other two men got him settled in bed. “Hear me?”
“I hear you, y' stubborn fool,” Buck said gently, pulling a blanket up over the other man. “Now, get some sleep.”
Ephraim grinned, chuckling at the blond's stubbornness and the brunet's handling of him. “Looks like y've had a bit 'a practice with 'im.”
“More than a little, sad to say,” Buck admitted. “I'm gonna go gather up the others and see if anyone knows how we handle things when Yates comes back.”
Frowning now, Ephraim said, “I c'n help y' with that.
The Fennelly ranch was the largest in the area. The two story house was a simple, white clapboard on the outside, but the inside was richly decorated with a feminine eye. There was a wrap around porch that was decorated with potted plants and wrought iron tables and chairs situated at various places. A stone walk led to a dirt path that had been worn over the years by the horses and wagons moving around the ranch. Beyond the ranch house's dooryard there was the bunkhouse, the cookhouse, the ice house and two barns, along with several, smaller outbuildings. There was a corral for the horses and another, smaller one for milk cows; a pen for pigs, and another for chickens.
Beyond the ranch proper, there were pastures to the south and east, hills to the north, where the road was, and trees to the west. Chris was fairly certain that Yates would arrive from the west if he was smart, or the north if he was more bold rather than smart. Given his actions when he had come after Vin the first time, along with the fact that he wasn't expecting any problems, Ezra laid bets on it being the north.
They were sitting around the room where Chris had been brought a few hours before, Nathan suggesting that he rest as much as possible if he expected to be well enough to help fight Yates. While Larabee grumbled and groused, he was stretched out on the bed. Ann was with Vin, while Ephraim was helping them make plans. He had gathered quite a bit of information from his wife, although it was shared begrudgingly.
“Does Mrs. Fennelly have any idea of how many men will be with Yates?” Buck asked Ephraim.
Shaking his head, the old man said, “She only met with him, didn't see anyone else. Since he blinded her with promises of bringing Michael home, she doesn't remember much of anything else.”
“Doesn't matter,” Chris said with conviction, “We'll be ready for them.”
“Ephraim,” Ezra said, “Who introduced your wife to Yates?”
“That carpetbagger, Morris Cole. He was workin' on her before I left... bastard's put so many ideas into her head that she stopped hearin' me a long time ago.” It was easy to see the contempt the man had for the ranch foreman.
Looking over at Buck, Chris said, “Maybe someone needs to pay Cole a visit.”
“I believe that to be a job for Buck and me,” Josiah said with a smile that, even though they knew the man, sent chills down every spine in the room.
“No, I'm going to take care of him,” Larabee said, stubbornly. Just then, the door opened, and Ann entered.
“Nathan, he's awake.”
Briefly torn, Chris' decision was fairly simple. “All right, you two go take care of Cole.” He gained his feet, swaying for a beat, and then padded, barefoot, from the room right behind the healer.
“I'd like to come with you boys,” Ephraim said.
“By all means, my friend. The more the merrier.” Josiah agreed.
Looking at JD and Ezra, Buck said, “Why don't you two boys wait outside and keep watch, in case one of the others decides to leave the bunkhouse?” When he received a pair of agreeing nods, he led the others from the room.
By the time Chris entered the room where Vin was being tended, Nathan was already checking the injured man over. Ann smiled up at him and moved from the chair, silently offering it to him. Nodding his thanks, Chris settled on the chair he had spent far too many hours on already. He watched as Jackson listened to the man's breathing, his heartbeat, and felt his head for fever. “Nathan?”
“It's all better than it's been since I got here. I can't say for sure that he's out of the woods, but he's got a lot better chance now.”
Chris heaved a sigh of relief, then looked to see that there were a pair of unfocused, blue eyes staring at him. “Hey, Pard, nice to see you awake.”
Smiling, the blond said, “Yeah, it's me.”
“What?” He frowned now. “No, Pard, you're alive.”
“Yeah, I'm alive. We're both alive, you've just got more healing to do than I do.”
“Not dead,” Vin said with a sigh.
Patiently, Chris said, “No, Vin, nobody's dead. You just need to heal up. Can you do that?” When Tanner nodded weakly, he said, “Good. Now, why don't you close your eyes and go on back to sleep?”
“'Kay,” dutifully, Vin did just that.
“Easiest I've seen him mind,” Nathan teased softly.
With a chuckle, Chris said, “Don't expect it next time he wakes up.”
“Mr. Larabee?” Ann spoke up now. When he turned toward her she asked, “Might I go check on Mrs. Fennelly? It's nearly dinner time, and she really should eat.”
Thinking over the request, Chris finally said, “Alright, but you need to understand that, if she gets out and tries to head Yates off... well, I've never had to shoot a woman, but there's always a first time.”
Ann paled as his word sank in but, to her credit, she simply nodded. “I understand.”
Nodding toward the door, he said, “Go ahead then.” He watched as the woman quickly left the room.
“Think we can trust her?” Larabee asked Jackson.
“Yeah, I think so. She kept it secret when she realized Vin and I knew one another.”
Chris nodded, trusting Nathan's insight.
Morris Cole cried out as he flew a few feet across the bunkhouse, landing on, and busting, one of the straight back chairs. Through pain-filled eyes, he looked up at the bigger man who was once again standing over him. In a hoarse whisper, he choked out, “I told y' all I know!”
“You haven't told us a damn thing, now let's try this again. I want to know how many men Yates has with him and where he's gonna be comin' from!” Buck barked out angrily. It had taken very little to escalate his anger to this point, and Josiah and Ephraim were doing nothing more than staying out of his way, keeping watch on the rest of the hands. Ezra and JD came to the door, checking to make certain that it wasn't one of their friends being beaten. After making certain that Buck had the upper hand, they simply went back to their positions on either side of the bunkhouse porch, and kept watch on the door.
“I don't know!” Cole yelled now. “I don't know!”
“You stupid son of a bitch!” Buck pulled him up by his lapels and slammed him against one of the bunks. “You tell me where Yates is comin' from, and how many guys he's got, or you're not gonna be able to breathe without hurtin'!”
Seeing that the other man was more than ready to make good on his threat, Morris said, “Okay! Okay! I'll tell y' what I know!”
Letting go of the man's jacket, Buck couldn't help but offer a small, satisfied smile as Cole dropped to the floor with a pain-filled thud. “Okay, then, start talkin'.”
Cole glared at the other man, but no longer refused to answer his questions. He had a sneaking suspicion that he might have a couple cracked ribs, and he was seeing double. Much more and Wilmington would make good on his threat and try to kill him. Running a sleeve under his nose, and sniffing loudly, the man said, “Yates has just got two men with him. I was gonna leave with 'em t' take Tanner back t' Texas.”
“Which direction are they gonna be ridin' in from?”
“Is Michael with them?” This question came from Ephraim. The other men couldn't help but hear the note of hope in his voice.
“No. He died at the end of the war. There was... there was a letter that come from the Army. I tore it up before Mrs. Fennelly could read it.”
The elder Fennelly stormed across the room and grabbed up the smaller man now. Anger flared through him as he bellowed, “WHY!?”
In the bigger man's grasp, Morris Cole glared defiantly as he said, “Control. You two were fightin' all the time, and I knew that she was the one who really ran the ranch. It turned out better than I thought, 'cos you turned tail and run. So, I got control of things even easier than I expected to!”
“How did you get involved with Yates?” Josiah asked.
“Known 'im for a while. He came to me a few months back, tellin' me that he was busted flat. He'd gotten out of prison a couple weeks earlier, he said. We got to talkin' and, well, the plan just came to us. I've had somebody keepin' tabs on you fellers an’ when he heard that Tanner was gonna be on the road and away from most of his back up, he hightailed it out here t’ let me know. I sent word t' Yates and we set things in action. He come out here and talked t' Mrs. Fennelly about Michael and she couldn't agree to his plan quicker.”
“So, how were you gonna explain Michael not bein' anywhere around?”
“We wasn't. Yates was gonna get the money, get Tanner, and take off, promising to have Michael here within a week. When he didn't show up, I'd go lookin' for 'im. We'd meet up and head for Mexico.”
With a growl, Ephraim let go of the man, satisfaction showing briefly on his face, as Cole dropped to the ground with a grunt. Walking away, he stopped at the door. Turning back he asked, “Any of the others here in on your scheme?”
Shaking his head no, Cole saw the others indicating their innocence as well. “No. I wasn't gonna share the reward with any more than I had to.”
“If yer lyin'... yer dyin',” Ephraim said in a harsh tone. “Let the others go, boys, we got a ranch t' run.”
Behind him, Buck and Josiah turned to the other men. Josiah said, “Same goes for the rest of you. As long as you don't mess up our plan to capture Yates and his men, or you don't attempt to free Cole, you'll be fine. If you go against us in any way...” He smiled in that somewhat psychotic fashion that had made more than one man wet himself.
The room was filled with, “You won't get any problems with me.” and “I won't go against you.” The two members of the peacekeepers nodded. Josiah quickly gathered up their weaponry, then they left, prodding Cole before them.
Ezra and JD met them as they left the bunkhouse. Josiah filled them in, then said, “Why don't you two stick around here... make sure that nobody's planning to help Cole?”
“Yeah,” Buck agreed. “But make sure you stay out of sight, just in case Yates decides to come early.”
The two men nodded in agreement, watching as Buck, Josiah and Morris Cole walked toward the house... and the basement where the man had so recently imprisoned them.
When Buck came back upstairs to apprise Chris of what they'd found out, he found the blond spooning broth into Vin's mouth. They had lifted him up on pillows, and it looked like they had cleaned him up, even shaving him and combing his hair. “Well, you look fit to go courtin',” he said with a smile.
“Hey, Buck,” Vin murmured, his voice almost too soft to be heard. He accepted the broth with a look of defeat, but kept quiet about it.
“What did you find out?” Chris asked his old friend.
“Cole's in on it with Yates, guess they go back a ways. Rest of the hands are on the up and up, so we let them go back to work. Cole's in the basement. He says Yates only has three other men with him, and he says they'll come from the North.”
“You trust him?”
“'Bout as far as I can throw 'im, but we leaned on him pretty hard. Reckon he figured it'd be best to tell us what we wanted to know, and tell us the truth.”
One look at the big man told the other two the story of what he had done to get that truth; his skinned knuckles and a couple of blooming bruises telling them the extent of his efforts.
“Alright, then we need to figure out a warm welcome for that son of a bitch,” Chris decided.
“Chris,” Vin managed, “this is my fight.”
“Vin,” Larabee countered patiently, “I don't think you can take him down yourself at the moment.”
Reluctantly, the tracker had to agree. “I wanna be part of it, though.”
There was a pause, and then Chris smiled a Cheshire cat smile. “I think that can be arranged.”
Ephraim knocked on the door to the bedroom he had once shared with his wife, then opened it slowly. Margaret was lying in the bed, wearing a dressing gown and a sour expression. Ann was sitting beside the bed, writing in a journal. He realized that he was interrupting the woman dictating something to the woman that had been in their home since she was a child. “Sorry to interrupt. Annie, do you think I could have a few minutes alone with Maggie?”
“No, Anne, if this man has anything to say to me, it is nothing that you can't be privy to.”
Ann looked uncomfortable at the thought of being party to another argument between the battling spouses. It had been something she had found herself witnessing far to often before Ephraim had abandoned the ranch. Nonetheless she sat still, closing the journal and folding her hands over the leather cover.
Heaving a frustrated sigh, Ephraim said, “Fine, then. Maggie, Morris Cole is in cahoots with this Yates feller. He's the one that gave Yates the information on Michael, and on you.”
“I don't believe you,” Margaret said, but there was little conviction in her words.
“Then, don't. Woman, I ain't here t' argue with y'. I just wanted t' let y' know that Michael is gone. Cole told us there was a letter, near the end of the war. Michael was killed. He destroyed the letter so you wouldn't find out.” He didn't add that he had been right all along. It didn't seem necessary.
“Get out of my room, you lying bastard!” Margaret yelled, sitting up in the bed, her face contorted and red with anger. “Get out!”
“Maggie,” Ephraim tried to get her to listen. “Please --”
“Get out!” She screamed the words. Then she clutched her chest and collapsed back on the bed, her breathing labored.
“Maggie! Annie, go get the healer!” Ephraim dropped to his knees next to the bed, reaching out to cover his wife's knotted fists with his own, trembling hand.
Ann leapt to her feet and rushed from the room, calling out, “Mr. Jackson!” as she did.
Ephraim knelt at his wife's bedside, staring into the face of the woman he had fallen in love with so many years ago. On the other side of the bed, the healer was just finishing his exam. “Is she...”
“I'm more acquainted with broken bones and bullet wounds, but I think the worst is over. She can't be made upset or angry, Not 'til she gets her strength back at least, maybe not even then, or she'll have another spell. For now, we need to keep her quiet and comfortable.”
“Reckon I should clear out, then,” Ephraim said softly.
“Running... again?” Margaret said softly.
“Maggie, I don't want t' make y' sick ag'in. Figger if I'm not here, y' won't have t' deal with me.”
“Ephraim... I need you here. Don't you... understand? I've always needed you here. But, if you're set on going...”
Reaching out and taking her hands in his, the man said, “Maggie, I love you... never stopped lovin' you. If you want me to stay... I will.” He smiled and then said, “I'll just stay away from y', how's that?”
Margaret Mary Fennelly managed a smile and a soft, girlish giggle. “Unless you go take a bath, I'll still be able to smell you.”
“Well, now, here y' go, already tellin' me what t' do,” He leaned forward and kissed his wife passionately. “Alright, Mrs. Fennelly, I'll go see if I can scrub off some of this parfume.” With that he stood and prepared to leave.
“Your... clothes are where you... left them,” Margaret told him.
“Yes ma'am, I'll even change my longjohns!”
Nathan couldn't help but shake his head and chuckle at the exchange, then returned his attention to his new patient. “How's the pain now, ma'am?”
Waving a hand dismissively, Margaret said, “I've had worse.”
“You've had other spells like this?”
With a nod, she said, “They started a couple years ago. I've met with several doctors, Mr. Jackson. They all tell me the same thing, one of these days my heart is just going to give out. If I stay quiet, stay in bed, avoid getting angry... and so on... I'll live another decade.”
“But you're not interested in following their orders I reckon,” Nathan did his best to keep the scolding tone out of his voice.
Shaking her head now, Margaret said, “I have a ranch to run, Mr. Jackson, and I have a son to find. Michael was meant to take over this ranch when I died.”
“But, what if your husband is telling the truth?” Nathan asked tentatively.
Margaret closed her eyes, “I refuse to entertain that scenario, Mr. Jackson. My son is out there... somewhere... and I intend to have him home.”
Reaching out and gently patting the woman's shoulder, he said only, “Yes, ma'am.”
The cook, who refused to come out of the kitchen as long as the house was filled with strange men, was finally convinced that she was safe. That done, she began to prepare the evening's dinner. Leaving Vin and Margaret tucked away in their bedrooms, filled with broth and Laudanum, the rest of them gathered at the large dining room table. It was covered in a simple, muslin table cloth, and loaded down with an array of food, that had more than one stomach rumbling.
Ephraim sat at the head of the table, Ann at the foot, while the others settled along the sides. Nathan made certain that he was near Chris, knowing that, despite his claims to the contrary, Larabee was still suffering the effects of his head injury. If nothing more, he intended to get the man to go upstairs to bed as soon as he'd eaten.
The talk was light and companionable for a while, then turned to the impending arrival of Yates and his men.
“I've been thinking, we need to be out of sight before daylight,” Chris said. “We don't want to alert Yates or the others that we're here. Josiah, Buck, I want one of you to be outside, covering the road, the other one the woods. If it all goes south, do your best to make sure they don't get past you. Try to keep them alive, especially Yates. When this is over, we need to see if we can find out anything that might help clear Vin of those damned murder charges.”
“And the rest of us?” Ezra asked.
“We'll all be inside, but out of sight. Hopefully they'll all come inside, and we can take custody of them without killing anyone.”
“Mrs. Fennelly doesn't need this sort of ruckus,” Nathan argued. “Neither does Vin. Both of them are still bad off.”
“Can you put Mrs. Fennelly under?”
“Yeah, I can knock them both out.”
“No, just the lady.”
Holding up a hand to stop the other man's complaints, Larabee said, “I promised him that he'd be in on this, Nate. I'm not gonna go back on my word.”
“Is your word worth more than his life?” Jackson was getting angry now.
“No,” Chris said softly, “But this is his life we're talking about. He deserves to be in on it. Don't worry, I'll be nearby, and all he's got to do is sit there.”
Chris Larabee favored them all with one of his more brilliant smiles.
The sun had barely lifted its head above the horizon but, already the ranch house was filled with activity. The cook, now comfortable with all of the company, had prepared a hardy breakfast for them, including biscuits and honey. Chris had surprised Nathan by going to bed without an argument as soon as dinner was over. He had done nothing more than poke his head into the bedroom where Vin lay, then shuffled off to the room he had used earlier.
Now, as soon as he had finished his own breakfast, he filled another plate, added it and a cup of coffee to a tray, and started toward the stairs.
“Don't let him eat too much,” Nathan cautioned.
“Yes, sir,” Larabee replied with a grin. A few minutes later, Chris was carrying a tray into the bedroom where Vin lay. “You awake?”
“More or less,” Vin mumbled from where he lay bundled in blankets. Opening his eyes, he asked, “mush?”
“Scrambled eggs, toast, coffee. Figured that might be as much as you can handle right now.”
Moving now, Tanner tried to push himself up on the bed. Chris sat the tray aside and went to help his friend. Together they managed to get Vin sitting up, then Chris placed the tray across his lap. The entire time, the other man kept staring at him. “You're gonna wear holes through me, Pard. Why are you staring at me?”
“I thought... when they shot y'... threw you in the mine... thought you was dead.”
Chris looked at his friend with surprise. “They almost killed me, I'm not gonna lie about that. But I'm here, and I'm fine.” He wasn't, of course, he could admit that to himself. But Vin didn't need to know about the splitting headaches, the vertigo and the nausea that continued to plague him.
“I know, it's jist... sometimes... well, the other seems more real.”
“Well, one of these days it'll sink in. Probably about the time you pull some crazy stunt and I have to put a bullet into you, myself.” The two friends shared a laugh, one that not only held happiness and joy, but relief.
Sitting nearby, Larabee watched Tanner eating. He stopped after every bite, seeming to need to restore his energy before attempting another spoon full. Chris itched to help, but knew better. Time for Vin to start doing for himself.
“Y'all figger out what we're gonna do when Yates gets here?” Vin asked around a mouth full of toast.
“What am I gonna be doin'?” He bored serious, blue eyes into his friend.
“Don't get your drawers in a bunch, Vin, I've got a plan for you, too. But you're going to have to do as we say, alright?”
“I'll do whatever it takes, Chris, but I'm gonna make sure that Yates don't get away again.”
“No, now you listen. WE are going to do whatever it takes to make sure he doesn't get away again. You are not in this alone, Vin, you've got six friends who are going to stand beside you. Got it?”
With a smile, Vin said, softly, “Got it.”
The plans had been set and the entire household, except for Vin and Margaret Fennelly, who were once more fed Laudanum-laced drinks at dinner, slept restlessly. Just before sunrise, Chris, Buck and Nathan entered Vin's room, Chris gently waking the tracker. “Come on, Pard, time to set things into action.”
Vin rallied, then did his best to help them as they helped him into a shirt, his lower body wrapped in a quilt. Buck and Nathan lifted him between them, and followed Chris out of the door. Either of the bigger men could have, as Nathan had a few days ago, carried him alone; the meat seemed to have melted off his bones during his illness. But this way was easier on Tanner.
Chris, holding a lantern in the darkness, led the way downstairs to the parlor. There they settled Vin on the settee, making certain that his injured leg was cushioned and in a comfortable position so that he wouldn't be tempted to move it any time soon.
Kneeling beside his friend, Chris offered a hand and sat quietly for a few minutes as Vin clung to it tightly as he rode out the pain. “Hang in there, Pard, it'll ease up soon.”
“Want me to give you something to help--” Nathan stopped when Vin gave a tight shake of the head.
Finally releasing his friend's hand, Vin rested against the curved back of the settee, simply sitting, very still, for a few minutes. His features had lost all color, and his face was pinched with pain.
“I wish we had a better idea of when that bastard, Yates, is ridin' in,” Buck said.
“Me, too,” Nathan agreed.
“Me... too,” Vin whispered hoarsely, a smile flitting across his face.
“Unfortunately, he could get here anytime between now and midnight. I'm betting, though, that he'll be early, try to throw everyone off.”
Just then, the door opened, and Morris Cole entered, followed closely by Ezra, who was holding a gun on the man. Gently squeezing one of Tanner's shoulders, Chris stood and came face to face with the man who had caused all the problems. In a dangerously soft voice, he said, “Now, you sorry son of a bitch, you listen up. If you do anything, and I mean anything, to tip our hand to Yates, remember one thing. I'll be right out of sight, but you won't be. You say a word, let him know we're waiting for him in any way, you'll die before you get out the second. Understand?”
Cole nodded frantically. He knew Larabee's reputation, and knew that he could make good on the threat.
“Good, then maybe you'll survive the day.” Chris stepped back across to where Vin sat and knelt down beside him. “If it gets too bad, yell out, okay? Nathan and I will be close by.”
“I'm fine,” Tanner replied, unconvincingly.
Patting his friend on the shoulder, Larabee said, “Sure you are.”
“Me and Ezra's gonna go take our places,” Buck said, just before he followed the other man out the door.
“Good luck,” Chris said, his old friend putting up a hand in acknowledgment as they disappeared from view.
Bernard Yates reined in his horse, staring down at the ranch house at the bottom of the hill. He watched for several minutes, silently, while the other three men with him grew more and more impatient.
“What the hell 're y' waitin' for, Yates?” One of the men asked.
“I'm waitin' to make certain that we're not riding into a trap, Logan. Now shut up and let me handle things.”
Logan cursed under his breath, spit a wad of tobacco on the ground suspiciously close to one of Yates' horses hoofs, but remained quiet.
After another five minutes, Yates said, “Alright, boys, let's go get us a dead man and a chunk of money.” Nudging his horse, he led the way down the hill and onto the ranch.
Buck watched from his hiding place, as the four men rode by. He quickly assessed them. Yates, of course, they knew. They could guess at how much of a problem he was. Although he looked it, he wasn't stupid. He had managed to almost convince all of them that he was a Marshall long enough to spirit Vin out of town. If not for a feeling that Chris had had that something wasn't right, they could have lost the sharpshooter then. From what he could tell, the others were nothing but muscle and guns. He imagined that Yates had chosen them for their lack of intelligence, so that, after they rode off with Vin, he could leave them bleeding in the dust, taking the entire reward for himself. That didn't mean that they weren't dangerous; a man looking for a big payout would be very dangerous. But Yates would be the one to keep an eye on.
Looking over at JD, who was also watching the men, he smiled, letting the younger man know there wasn't much to worry about. It was a lie, but he didn't want to spook the kid.
Ann Cochran stood on the porch, watching the riders approach. She hoped that her nervousness didn't show, but she wasn't betting on it. She tried to marshal her features so that she might look distraught, rather than frightened. As the men approached, she said, “I expected you to be here earlier.”
“Now, you don't need to put us on the defensive from the get-go. In fact, you just need to back off. I'll do my business with the lady of the house.”
Shaking her head, Ann said in a trembling voice, “She's ill, bed-ridden.”
Dismounting, Yates stomped up the stairs, looking down on her from where he towered over the woman. “Don't play games with me, woman. I want to see her, and I want to see her now.”
“Fine, come with me... but they stay out here. She doesn't need the stress of a bunch of... strangers... tramping through her home.”
Turning to the other three men, Yates said, “You boys stay out here, keep an eye on things.”
“Where's Michael? She'll want to see him right away.”
“She'll see her boy after I see my money, now come on.”
“But, you told her--”
“I said I'll do my dealin' with the lady of the house. Not her servant. Now, take me to her.”
“Fine.” Ann turned and led the way into the house. They made their way across the large entryway and up the stairs, not stopping until they entered the master bedroom. Ann stood aside, giving Yates full view of Margaret Fennelly.
Frowning as he took in the woman's colorless features and the pinched look on her features. “What's the matter with her, and who the hell are you?” He glared at Ephraim.
“I'm her husband, and you use a more respectful tone in my wife's presence.” Fennelly said. “You the one who can bring our boy home?”
“I am if you've got the money I asked for.”
“I do, but you won't see a dime until I see my boy.” Ephraim stared at Yates; Yates looked away first. “But, I'll tell you what I'll do. I'll give you half what you asked for and, when you bring Michael home, you'll get the other half.”
“You're not in any position to bargain, old man,” Yates tried to look intimidating. “I made my deal with the lady.”
“I didn't build this place to what it is by being stupid and gullible, you fool. Half now, and half when I see my boy. Otherwise, no deal.”
“Then, I reckon we've got no deal.” Yates turned to walk away.
“Wait!” Ephraim called out. He didn't see the cold smile that spread across Yates' face.
Yates three men had dismounted, and stood waiting impatiently for the other man to re-emerge from the house. They looked around, not even noticing just how quiet the ranch was. The hands had been instructed to do only the most necessary of chores and then to keep out of sight. Most of them were waiting in the bunkhouse, while a few had chosen the barns as more appropriate hiding places. After a few minutes, the newcomers got into an argument, and were so intent on out-yelling one another that they didn't realize that there were four men, approaching them stealthily.
“You boys need to shut up and shuck your weapons,” Josiah said as a way to announce their presence.
The trio jerked around, grabbing for their weapons, only to see that there were several weapons already pointed at them. After a few seconds of stunned contemplation, they raised their hands.
“Kid, check 'em, and get all their weapons.” Buck suggested.
“Right.” JD made quick work of divesting all three men of every weapon visible and secreted on their bodies. Soon he had an armload. “This is all I find.”
“Good. Okay, let's get 'em tied up and gagged. We can put them in the cellar,” Buck continued. “JD, take their horses out to the corral and ditch the guns in the wood bin,” he indicated the box on the porch, near the door, used to store wood in the winter.
JD nodded and set about carrying out his part of the operation while the other three bound and gagged Yates’ three men and marched them back to the cellar, which hadn't had this much activity since canning season the year before.
Things were working out well, so far. They just hoped it was the same inside.
Ephraim stood, and moved toward Yates. “I'll take y' to get the money.”
“Where is it?” Yates asked, suspicion plain on his face.
“Downstairs, in the safe.”
The man who had expected to have an easy go of it, facing off against an old woman, had to think about this new change of events. He stared hard at Mrs. Fennelly, as if wondering if perhaps she was playing possum. Then he eyed Ann with a hard gaze, considering her part in all this. Finally he turned back toward Ephraim Fennelly. “Alright, let's go. But no funny business.”
Glaring back at the man, Ephraim said, “All I want is for you to get what you came for, hand over my boy, and get the hell out of here. Send me my boy, and don't darken this place again. Am I clear?”
“Old man,” Yates got into the older man's face. “I make the calls here, not you. And, on second thought, I want your girl to take me to the money, we'll lock you and your... wife... in here.”
“Do I look like a fool who'd give the hired help the combination to my safe?” Ephraim barked indignantly, even though he knew that Ann knew the combination much better than he did.
“Then give it to her!” Yates barked, his voice causing Margaret to cry out and jerk where she lay in bed. Turning an angry expression on the older man, he said, “We do things my way, or she'll be cold in the ground long before I bring your boy home.”
“Mr. Fennelly,” Ann broke in, worried about her mistress, and said, “I know the combination. Mrs. Fennelly gave it to me last winter.”
“She did, eh? Well, me and her's gonna have a few words about that.”
“Please, sir, it was while you were away, and she was ill. I promise I've only ever opened it under her orders.”
Ephraim continued to glare, but deep down he was only worried. He wanted to keep Ann safe; she had become like a daughter to him long ago. He couldn't stand the thought of losing her. At least no more than his absence had cost him.
“Well, now that we've got that all sorted out, you go sit back down with your wife and me and the girl here will go see to the money.”
Vin lay on the sofa, leaning heavily against the cushioned back. He wasn't about to miss out on helping to capture Yates, but he hoped it would happen soon, because he felt as if he could pass out at any time. He had heard Miss Cochran leading the bastard upstairs a short time before, and knew that Yates should come back down at any moment.
Cole was nearby, sitting stiffly in the chair. From time to time he would make some comment or other, mostly under his breath, and always angry. Finally, Vin responded with, “If y' don't shut the hell up... I'm gonna ask Chris fer his gun... and shoot y' myself.”
“You and me both know y' ain't got the strength t' lift a damn gun,” Cole countered.
Vin could admit to himself that the man was probably right, but all he said was, “Try me.”
Any further comments went unsaid as they heard the sounds of footsteps approaching. The parlor door opened and Ann Cochran was ushering Yates in. Tanner could see that the woman was pale and nervous, but he doubted that Yates had noticed. He hoped not, anyway, as she could give away their plan.
“Well, howdy, Tanner,” Yates said in a cold tone. “You ready to go for a ride?”
“I ain't goin' anywhere with you, Yates,” he replied with far more confidence than he felt at the moment.
“Well, now, sure y' are! You've got a date with the hangman out in Tascosa, son, and I aim to make certain you keep it.” He advanced on the couch, a feral grin splitting his face. His hand rested on the butt of his gun, but he didn't seem ready to pull it quite yet. “See, I know that you don't have your buddies to save your worthless hide. Told this one,” he nodded toward Cole, who he seemed to assume was keeping watch over Vin, “to get rid of anyone else you might be with. Which one was it, Cole?”
“It was... the gunfighter,” Morris tried to catch Yates' eye, wanting to let him know that it was a trap. Yates was too busy gloating to pay any sort of attention to him, though.
“Figured. You two seemed awful close... must'a been hard to lose him.”
In the silence that followed, the sound of a gun being cocked rang out like an explosion. “Sorry to disappoint you... Bernard... but I'm not dead.” As he spoke, Chris stepped out of his hiding place. The smile on his face was as deadly as the gun he held trained on Yates.
Yates cursed and moved back, his hands held away from his body. “A trap!?” He growled, stating the obvious.
“Pretty successful one, too,” Nathan said, joining them from his hiding place. He moved over to kneel next to Tanner, who seemed to be wilting before their eyes. Pressing the back of one, large hand to the injured man's forehead, he said softly, “You've got a bit of a fever again.”
“He gonna be alright?” Chris asked, his eyes never leaving Yates.
“He needs to get back to bed and away from all the hubbub, but I reckon he'll perk up pretty quick once he gets some rest.”
With a nod, Larabee said, “Take care of him, I'll take care of these two.”
Yates said nothing, but offered up a glare to rival Larabee's. He didn't resist, but he didn't cooperate, either, as the blond relieved him of his weapons.
Buck entered the room, a broad grin on his face. “The others are enjoyin' their new accommodations in the cellar.” He chuckled at the look of defeat on both Yates and Cole's faces. “Yeah, sorry, boys, but help ain't comin' anytime soon.”
His own smile genuine now, Chris said, “Why don't you help Nathan get Vin back upstairs to bed, and I'll take these two jackasses to join their friends.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Buck agreed, going to where Tanner lay. With a shake of his head, he said to the prone man, “Hey there, stud, seen you lookin' a might livelier.”
“Shut up, Buck,” Vin muttered as he endured the two men carefully lifting him up between them and heading toward the stairway.
Chris glanced over at Ann. “Are you alright, miss?”
She managed a wan smile and nodded. “I'm fine. I believe I'll go back up with Mrs. Fennelly if you've no other need of me for now?”
With a nod, Larabee said, “Thank you for helping us out, Miss Cochran.”
Giving a cold look at both Cole and Yates, Ann said, “It was my pleasure.”
As she left the room with a swish of long skirts, Chris turned his attention fully back to the men in his custody. “Let's go.”
By the time Nathan and Buck managed to get Vin back up to the bedroom, he wasn't able to hide the signs of pain any longer. As he felt himself lowered onto the mattress, he let out a long, pain-filled moan.
Offering his hand to the other man, who grasped it like it was a lifeline, Buck asked, “What else can I do to help out, Doc?”
Noting the weak grip on the big man's hand, Nathan said, “I'll go get some water and have someone go bring up a little of the ice, you stay here and keep an eye on him.”
“You got it,” Buck said with a compassionate smile. He settled carefully on the edge of the bed, gently squeezing Tanner's hand. As Nathan left the room, he said softly, “It's just me and you here, pard. Yell if you want to.”
Managing a smile, Vin replied, “Don't reckon I've got the energy, but thanks.”
Never one for silence, Buck began talking, about nothing important. It didn't matter, the sound of his voice seemed to be enough to pull Vin back from the pain enough to allow him to relax a little. The big man continued to talk, filling the time with recollections of one female conquest after another. He didn't stop until Nathan returned, carrying a bucket of water from the well.
“How's he doin'?”
“Y' know... I am right here,” Vin managed to grit out through clenched teeth.
“Sorry, thought maybe you were sleepin'.”
With a snort, Tanner said, “not hardly.”
“Well, tell you what. Let's get you comfortable, and give you something to help you rest. How's that sound?”
Too tired to say anything more, Vin simply nodded. He lay still, eyes squeezed shut as he tried to fight the fever and pain that once more tried to consume him. It battered at his fragile defenses and he was just about to give in, when he felt his head and shoulders lifted and something cool washed past his lips and spread through his body. Lowered back to the pillows then, he felt something new and blessedly cool, being wiped over his face, neck and upper body. He sighed blissfully.
Nathan smiled as the pain slowly eased from the other man's face, allowing his features to smooth out and relax. Hating to spoil the other man's relief, he waited until the Laudanum carried him away from the pain. Then, carefully, he unwrapped the bandages, looking over the wound. Satisfied that it hadn’t been further damaged by Tanner's trip, he covered the area well with a salve and re-bandaged the wound. Pulling the sheet up over his friend, he lightly patted one, exposed shoulder. “Sleep well.”
By evening six of the men had finally had a chance to relax and take in the full situation. Ephraim had come out to exchange a few words from time to time but, for the most part, both he and Ann stayed in Margaret's room with her. She had roused a few times, taken in some broth and more medicine but, most of the time she lay sleeping.
The men were in the parlor, having shared dinner and conversation. Now, Ezra was busy trying to fleece Buck and JD out of the few dollars they had managed to save, and Josiah and Nathan were deep in discussion. Chris, as he often did, sat separate from the others, staring out into the darkness.
“Don't reckon we've got much to worry about from the boys in the bunkhouse, stud,” Buck said as he dropped three cards on the table and accepted their replacements.
“No, Ephraim talked to them earlier, told them that, as long as they just took care of the ranch and left the rest of it to him and us, they'd get a bonus come next payday,” JD added.
Chris simply nodded and continued watching out the window. After a few minutes, the others went back to their conversation and cards.
While outwardly calm, Larabee was busy planning what came next. They had a chance that, until now, he thought he'd taken away from his friend. If Yates could shed any light on what Eli Joe had done; setting Vin up to be charged with the murder of Jess Kincaid, then, perhaps, they could clear the man's name.
The only question was, how did they convince the bastard to part with that information?
“You know, man like Yates... they've always got something they find worth giving up their secrets for.” Josiah said, seemingly out of nowhere.
“Yeah?” Buck responded, “And what do you think might be Yate's price?”
“Freedom,” Chris said softly, eyes shining as he turned to the others. “When he gets back to prison, things will be a lot worse than they were. They'll send him far enough away that he's not likely to find someone he knows to help him break out.”
“Think he knows that?” Nathan asked.
“If not, he will soon,” Chris said with a feral smile.
Yates stood near the foot of the basement stairs, staring upward as the door was pulled open above. There was a gun pointed in his direction, and he backed up begrudgingly. Going to where he had been sitting, on an upturned crate, he sat back down, his eyes speaking volumes.
“What's the matter, don't like the accommodations?” Buck asked as he came to stand in the middle of the room. Cole and the other three men had gathered in the opposite corner, seeming to be fearful of their roommate. “You boys not happy with your room, either?”
From where he was, having settled on one of the lower stairs, JD said, “Sorry, boys, all the feather beds are taken.”
“Maybe you could fill them in, Yates... let them know how this compares to where you boys will be heading.” Chris taunted from where he now stood, leaning against the wall. “Let them know what you'll all have to look forward to... in prison.”
“I'm not goin' back there,” Yates retorted, fear creeping into his voice.
“You sound worried, Bernard,” Chris observed. “Don't think you could pull off a second jail break?”
“I didn't break out of jail, I was released. Ask the warden!”
“Oh, we will,” Buck said with a nod. “Don't worry about that.”
“Meantime, we've got some questions,” Chris said.
“I've got nothin' to say to you.”
“What a shame.” Chris stalked across the room and stood in front of the seated man. “Because it would be in your best interests to cooperate.”
“I ain't cooperatin' with Travis' hired hounds,” Yates bluffed.
“You'll cooperate before it's over, you son of a bitch,” Chris leaned forward, his voice a soft growl that turned the other man's blood to ice water. “You might as well save yourself some pain and tell us now.”
“I-I've got nothin' to s-say.”
Larabee held the other man's eye until Yates blinked, then turned slightly and spoke to the other two peacekeepers. “Boys, I say we leave Bernard alone for awhile... let him think about things. Take the others out and shoot 'em.”
“Wh-what!” Cole screamed.
“You ca-can't do that!” One of the other men argued.
Both Wilmington and Dunne drew their guns, Buck canting his head toward the stairs. As the men moved slowly toward them, he called out, “Josiah, we're comin' up!” The door opened and, as they moved to the foot of the stairs, they could see three men standing above them, guns at the ready.
“Come on up, brothers, let's say a prayer together,” Josiah offered with a smile.
Chris stepped back, giving Yates a clear view of the others walking up the stairs, as if they were walking to the gallows. And that was exactly what he wanted the other man to see. Nothing more was said until JD, bringing up the rear, closed the cellar door. Only then did Chris turn back to his prisoner. “Well, at least you'll enjoy some peace and quiet.”
Yates continued to stare at the stairway, as if trying to see what was happening beyond. It seemed as if the entire world had gone silent for a very long moment. Then he jumped as four shots rang out in quick succession. Wild eyed, he turned to the other man. “You're lyin'! You wouldn't!”
“Wouldn't we?” Chris walked away, leaving Yates behind him as he left the dark little room.
Outside, the blond locked the cellar door and then hurried to the front of the house, where the others were standing. Laughing. He followed their gazes and watched as the four men were running full out down the lane. With a genuine grin, he said, “Think they'll stay gone?”
“Hell, stud,” Buck replied, chuckling, “Josiah put the fear of God in 'em so bad, one of 'em wet himself before they took off. I don't think any of 'em will even ride through this part of the territory again.”
“What about Yates?” Ezra asked. “Do you think he'll be more amenable to our questions now?”
“If he doesn't die of fright first,” Chris replied, which sent all six of them into another fit of laughter.
Vin opened his eyes at the sound of someone entering the bedroom. When he saw it was Chris, he said without preamble, “heard gunshots. Yates?”
Shaking his head, Larabee said, “No, he's safe and sound.” He proceeded to tell the other man of the plan and how well it worked.
With a smile, Tanner said, “Wish I could'a been there. Sounds awful entertainin'.”
Chris smiled but didn't reply. Instead, he asked, “How are you feeling?”
“Don't think I'll be doin' any dancin' anytime soon.”
“I'm sure the toes of all the ladies back in town will be happy to hear that,” Chris teased. The two men fell into a comfortable, companionable silence then, Larabee slipping out only after Tanner had fallen back to sleep.
Going to the parlor, he found Josiah reading a book he'd found on one of the parlor shelves. “Where is everyone?”
“Buck and JD went to take care of the horses, Ezra thought it prudent to ride out a little way to check on Cole and the others and Miss Cochran just came and got Nathan. Evidently Mrs. Fennelly's had another spell.”
“That doesn't sound good.”
Shaking his head, Sanchez said, “Nathan said it's only a matter of time... something to do with her heart. I wish we could do something to ease her mind about her son.”
“Yeah, like she eased ours when she nearly got Vin killed?” Chris retorted, but there was no heat in his tone.
“Can you say that, if someone promised they could bring your family back to you, that you wouldn't do the same?”
With a sigh, Chris said, “I can understand what you're saying, but...”
“It doesn't completely wipe away the fact that Vin nearly died because of her quest to find her son. I agree. Still, if we could ease her passing...”
Rather than reply to the older man's thoughts, Chris said, “I'm gonna go give Buck and JD a hand, I'm feeling cooped up in here.”
Nathan looked up from where he had been listening to the lady of the house's heart, finding himself under the scrutiny of the other two people in the room. He wished he had something better to tell them, but could only give them the truth. “Don't think it's gonna be long now.”
Ann was sitting there, tears streaming down her face. All she could do was nod, hands clasped in her lap so tightly that the muscles twitched. Beside her, Ephraim seemed unmoved until you looked into his eyes. The pain was raw there, fathomless. In a choked voice, he said, incongruously, “Thank you, Nathan.”
“Eph?” The voice was soft, barely audible.
Looking down into his wife's pain-etched face, Ephraim Fennelly said, “Right here, Magpie.”
“You haven't called me that for so long...” she sighed, “I do love you, Eph, more than anything.”
Reaching out and clasping her hand, which looked very small and frail in his big hand, Ephraim said, “I know y' do, darlin', just as you're the love of my life.”
Her eyes, having been locked on her husband in a loving gaze, moved slightly, and she gasped. “Michael!”
“Maggie, darlin'...” Ephraim began.
“Eph, look, it's Michael!” She seemed stronger, sitting up on the bed and reaching out her free hand. “Michael!”
“Maggie, listen,” Ephraim tried a second time. Then, he seemed to understand and his tone became tinged with sorrow, “He's come t' see y' at last, darlin'.”
“Oh Michael, it's been so very, very long!”
Neither Nathan nor Ann could resist the draw to look at the place where the older woman was looking. They saw nothing, but seemed inherently to understand what was going on. On his part, Ephraim slipped up beside his wife, settling on the mattress and gathering her in his arms. She settled into his embrace with a contented sigh.
“He wants me to go with him, Ephraim,” Margaret said in a soft voice.
“I know he does, darlin'.” Although his voice was strong, there were tears rolling down the man's face. “He's waitin' fer y'.”
Margaret nodded then, suddenly, went limp in her husband's arms with another sigh. Beside them, Nathan took her wrist, searching for a pulse. When he realized that there was none, he looked first at Ephraim, then at Ann. With a nod, he let them know that the lady of the house had passed away. Feeling suddenly weary, he stood and left the room quietly, allowing her remaining family some time to grieve.
That night the men settled in various places around the house; Chris had vacated the bedroom where he'd slept through some of the symptoms of his head injury, discovering that it was Ann's room. He settled on his bedroll on the floor in the room where Vin slept. Ezra chose the settee, while Nathan, Buck and JD found themselves sleeping in the bunkhouse. Josiah, like the man of the house, didn't seek sleep that night. Together, aided by lanterns, they worked to build a coffin fit to be the final resting place of Margaret Fennelly. Inside, Ann spent the night hours, aided by the cook at times, preparing the lady of the house for burial.
As dawn broke, Chris, Buck and Nathan went to the little family cemetery and dug a grave between smaller markers that identified the infants and children that the Fennellys had lost over the years. As they finished, Ephraim, Josiah, JD and Ezra carried the coffin from the house, Ann, the cook, and the ranch-hands following the coffin out to the graveside.
They lowered the coffin into the ground, Josiah saying a few words meant to comfort those left behind. Chris picked up a shovel once more, but Ephraim waved him off. “Reckon I'd like t' do this myself, if y' don't mind.”
With a nod of understanding, Larabee handed over the tool, and motioned to the others to follow him. Before long, Ephraim Fennelly was alone, the sound of the single shovel ringing steadily in the morning air.
Chris walked down the cellar stairs, a tin plate in one hand, a cup in the other. Reaching the cellar floor, he blinked as his eyes adjusted to the dim light. He found Yates sprawled out on the blankets they'd given him, snoring softly. Nudging the prone man with the toe of his boot, the gunfighter said, “Wake up.”
Opening his eyes with a start, Yates stared around him, his panicked gaze landing on the man standing over him. “Wh-what?”
“Brought you something to eat.” Chris handed over the things he'd carried down, then turned to leave the basement. His keen hearing served him well, and he ducked as the tin cup sailed past his head, followed by the plate. All he said was, “Suit yourself, it's gonna be a long, dry afternoon.”
“Let me out of here! You can't keep me locked up down here!” Yates bellowed.
Turning back to glare at the man who had nearly killed his friend twice now, Chris said only, “Seems to me that we're doing just that.” Without another word, he walked back up the stairs, inwardly thankful that Buck was at the top of the stairs with his gun out, ready in case their prisoner tried to escape.
Buck grinned as Chris came to join him. “Don't sound like ol' Yates is very happy with his accommodations.”
“Nope,” Chris replied with a feral smile.
“How long do you think it's gonna take for us to wear him down?”
Shrugging, Larabee replied, “Give him another day.”
Buck nodded as he locked the cellar door closed once more.
“Damn it, Nathan, come on,” Vin groused.
Chris entered the room, hiding a smile as he took in the scene before him. Vin, propped up on pillows, as washed out looking as a body could be, trying his damnedest to convince Nathan that he was fine. “Give it up, Tanner, you haven't seen what you look like lately.”
“What's that got t' do with anything?” Vin argued.
He shook his head and simply turned to the healer. “How long do you think we'll need to stay here?”
“We can leave any time, but he,” Jackson glared at the bedridden man, “needs another week.”
“Ah, hell, I don't need t' be layin' here for another week! I've felt worse'n this and been out huntin',” Tanner disagreed.
“Vin, I told you, you don't feel too bad right now, 'cause you've been in bed healin' for several days. But, you try and get up out of this bed, you try ridin' that damn mule of yours, and you'll collapse in no time.”
“We've got another reason to stay here, pard,” Larabee said in a soothing tone. “We give him a couple more days down in that cellar and I imagine good ol' Yates will be more than happy to tell us anything we want to know.”
Wide, blue eyes glittered with hope and happiness. “You reckon he'll help me clear my name?”
“If things go the way I think they will, he will soon. Listen, I'm gonna send Buck and Ezra to the nearest town with a telegraph to let the town know we're gonna be gone for a while longer. They're also gonna telegraph Travis to see if he can do anything to help us out. By the time they get back... especially if Ezra finds a game and Buck finds a willing lady... you'll be ready to go. Then we'll head for Tascosa with Yates and get that wanted poster pulled.”
Vin seemed to go limp, but it was with relief. He smiled, emotions flitting across his face like birds in flight. All he could find to say, however, was a heartfelt, “Damn.”
Smiling back at his friend, Chris said, “So, you stop vexing Nathan and work on getting as well as you think you are now. You'll need to be ready for the trip when they get back.”
Tanner folded his hands across his chest and stared up at the ceiling, seeming to be trying to believe that, very soon, he could be a free man. Deciding that the man needed a little time alone, Larabee motioned to the healer and led the way out the door, closing it behind him.
Over the next two days things settled into a new type of normal. Ephraim established himself once more as the owner of the ranch, appointing a new top hand only after he couldn't talk Chris into taking on the role. Larabee had simply smiled and shook his head, but he did give the other man input into who, among the hands, would fit the role best.
Vin continued to grow stronger, even managing a few steps between the strong arms of his friends. He couldn't put any weight on the injured limb as yet, but Nathan assured him that it was only a matter of time.
Twice a day, one of the men would visit the cellar, always with someone standing guard at the top of the stairs. As Larabee predicted, the confinement, along with the growing understanding that he wasn't going to be able to escape the grasp of the peacekeepers, began to weaken Yates' resolve.
On the morning of the third day, Chris visited their captive, bringing a tray of food and a lantern to bring a little light into the cellar. He found Yates sitting in a corner, his arms wrapped around his legs, which were drawn up to his chest. The man looked nothing like the self-assured man they had dealt with before. “Morning.”
“I want out of here... now,” Yates said in a rough, trembling voice. “You don't have the right to... hold me here.”
“Do we have to go through this every time, Bernard?”
“That's not my name.”
“So you lied about that, too, when you deceived that poor, grief-stricken mother?”
“I promised her the thing she wanted most in the world; her son.”
“Who you knew was long dead.”
“I gave her some hope, something nobody else had given her in a very long time.”
“You gave her a fist full of lies, you sleazy son of a bitch.” Chris shoved the tray at the seated man, leaving Yates scrambling to keep from wearing his dinner. “You know as well as I do that you were only doing what you did so that you could make some easy money and get your revenge on Vin.”
“And why shouldn't I? Why shouldn't I get it on all of you. You bastards killed my partner and cost me time in prison. You ever been in prison?”
Chris smirked, not wasting time in telling the other man just how well he knew what prison could be like. “If you hadn't tried to kill him, hadn't been Eli Joe's hired hound, you wouldn't have gone to prison. Your choices, Yates. Don't blame us because you made the wrong ones.”
Larabee turned and started back up the stairs, but stopped when a panicked cry called out to him. “WAIT!”
“Why should I?” Chris continued to walk.
“Alright! I'll tell you everything I know! Just, for God's sake, don't leave me down here in the dark anymore!”
Turning, Larabee said, “So you're gonna tell us how Eli Joe framed Vin?”
“Ye-yeah... yes,” Yates said.
With a snort, Larabee resumed walking. “I don't believe you.” He continued on, leaving Yates in the dark basement, alone, once again. The man's panicked voice followed him up the stairs, muffled only when Josiah closed the doors behind him.
“You think he's telling the truth?” Sanchez asked.
“Not yet,” Chris said, shaking his head. “But he will soon.”
It was another two days before Chris was convinced that Yates was ready to be truthful; and a third before he had Josiah and Buck bring the man upstairs. Once more Yates entered the parlor to find Vin waiting for him.
“Figured you were dead by now, ya ain’t been comin’ to visit me. Guess ya figured you’d just have your lackies do it.”
With a smirk, Tanner replied, “It’ll take more ‘n the likes of you to bring me down permanent. Larabee tells me yer ready to tell what y’ know about Eli Joe settin’ me up.”
Slumping, Yates inadvertently showed just how much a week in the dark basement had worn on him. After a long silence, he said softly, “yeah.”
“I know ya ain’t doin’ it out of the goodness of yer heart, but still, I’m beholdin’ to ya fer it.”
The two men gazed at one another; nothing more needed to be said.
“Are you certain you’re ready to leave here? He’s still not well.” Ann looked worriedly over at the dark healer, then to where Vin was making his way across the dining room, limping heavily and stopping after every few steps.
“Ma’am, he’s gonna have trouble gettin’ around for another few months at least. One thing I know about Vin Tanner is that getting his name cleared is the best medicine he could ever receive. Going to Tuscosa and havin’ Yates tell the law there that Vin didn’t kill Kincaid will do more for him than any medicine I’ve ever heard of.”
“Still…” she trailed off, recognizing that she simply didn’t want the seven men to leave. Her entire world had been turned upside down, and the last thing she wanted to do was be alone with her thoughts. “You are going to take a wagon, aren’t you?”
Smiling, Nathan nodded. “Yes, ma’am. He ain’t too keen on ridin’ in it but he knows he ain’t got a choice right now.” He didn’t add that they were taking the man’s horse, planning to get him on it so that he could ride into town proper.
Just then Ephraim joined them, his hands behind his back. Watching Vin for a few seconds, he said, “Yer gittin’ around pretty good I reckon.”
“Hell… sorry, ma’am… I’m movin’ like a three legged horse that’s drunk on whiskey.”
With a grin, the older man brought his hands before him, one of them holding a long, polished cane. “Reckon it was the least I could do, seein’ as how it was my men who clipped yer wings.”
Reaching out, Vin admired the craftsmanship of the object. With a low whistle, he said, “You spent some time on this, that’s plain ta see. I… well, I… thank ya, Ephraim.”
With a nod, the man of the house smiled and said, “Yer more ‘n welcome, son.”
“Well, try it out,” Nathan encouraged.
With an embarrassed flush, the sharpshooter shifted his weight and maneuvered the cane into position. Slowly he moved forward, his weight balanced by the walking stick. It took a little practice but a short time later, he found that he could move faster and with greater ease, using the staff. He seemed almost giddy as he left the room, heading toward the porch.
“Don’t wear yourself out!” Nathan admonished, knowing that his words would be ignored until the man was ready to fall on his face. Turning toward Ephraim, he said, “Thank you. That’s gonna help him in more ways than one, that’s for certain.”
“I’m glad, son, I’m glad. When are y’all plannin’ on leavin’?”
“Reckon we’ll be headin’ out just before sunup tomorrow. Gonna take a few days to get there, at least. Probably longer.”
“Well, once it’s all behind y’, yer more’n welcome to stop back by for another visit. Anytime yer in this neck ‘a the woods, y’ve always got a place at our table.”
With a grin, Nathan said, “We all appreciate that, Ephraim, thank you.”
The next morning, before the sun was much more than a hint of light on the horizon, the men prepared to go. Buck and Ezra had arrived just the afternoon before, both of them filled with tales that nobody completely believed. One thing that they could believe, however, was the wagon they brought with them, that Ezra said he had “reluctantly” taken in lieu of cash during one of his games. However, there was a mattress in the bed that, they knew, Vin would be reluctantly using more than he insisted he would. There was also a metal bar bolted into the heavy wood that they could use to handcuff Yates to. He, too, would be a reluctant passenger in the wagon. Both were dead giveaways that their resident gambler had planned the winnings… or purchases… all along, to make the trip a little easier. There were also two boxes of food that Ann and the cook had prepared for their trip.
With Josiah handling the wagon and the two passengers settled in the bed, the others, on horseback, joined them on the road from the ranch. Ephraim, Ann, and several of the others saw them off, waving until they were out of sight.
The next few days quickly became routine. Vin spent a little more time in the wagon seat and a little less in the bed. Yates complained until someone pointed a gun at him. Although he would argue that they weren’t going to kill him since he was the only way Vin could be free, he still fell silent. He was allowed off the shackles that held him in the wagon only for meals and calls of nature, and during those times he was closely watched by at least one of the men.
They began their journey at sunup and ended just before sundown, stopping only to rest the horses. After five, long but uneventful days of traveling, Vin reckoned that they would reach Tascosa around midday the next day. They had settled around the cook fire, leaving Yates in the wagon for the time being.
“Reckon it’s time for a little celebratin’, then,” Buck said, a smile making his mustache twitch.
Vin looked unusually tense at that suggestion. “Let’s wait ‘til we’re done with all this, then I’ll buy the first round.” He wouldn’t admit it to the others, but he feared jinxing his chances by celebrating before the verdict came down.
Oblivious to Tanner’s concerns, Wilmington said, “Hell, son, I didn’t say this was going to be the last celebratin’ we’re gonna do, we’re gonna celebrate when we’re done in Tascosa, too. This here is just the first celebration.”
Tanner relaxed a little and chuckled. Then he frowned when Buck added, “I’m gonna hold you to that first round, though.”
“Well, I was going to save this to take back with us, but I believe it will taste much better out here, under the stars.” Ezra said, holding up a bottle of whiskey that appeared to be as far from red-eye as the water in a mud puddle was from that of a spring creek.
“Uh, Ezra?” JD interrupted, “the stars ain’t out yet.”
“Figure of speech, dear boy, figure of speech,” the gambler said, shaking his head.
“Well, then, let’s open it up and get this party started,” Buck said with a grin. He moved to the wagon and returned with seven mugs that Ann had sent them off with. Passing them out, he settled down with the others. Ezra came behind him, dolling out a healthy dose of liquor into each mug.
Josiah held his up and said, “A toast. To Vin Tanner gaining his wrongly taken freedom.”
“Hear, hear!” JD agreed.
“To Vin’s freedom,” the others rang in.
With a grin, the man of the hour said, “Well, if we’re sharin’ toasts, I’ve got one. To my friends, who have never questioned my innocence; who’ve only left my side a time or two…” his grinned widened and he added a wink, “but who’ve had my back when it counted. And who I’d never be able to clear my name without.”
“Yeah, well what about me?” Yates complained from the wagon. “You’d never erase that mark on your name without me.”
Chris rolled his eyes. “Shut up, Bernard.”
“Nah,” Vin disagreed, “he’s right. Who’s got the keys to his cuffs?”
“I’ve got them,” Buck held them up.
“Let the son of a bitch join us fer a drink.”
With a nod, Wilmington stepped up into the wagon bed and knelt beside their prisoner. In a dangerously quiet voice, he said, “You hear me right now, you lily-livered son of a bitch. You even act like you’re gonna try and get away, and I will hurt you in a very significant way. You won’t die, but you’re gonna wish you would. Do we have an understanding?”
Yates tried to respond with an angry look, but there was too much fear in his eyes. Finally he found his voice and said, “Yeah.”
“Good,” Buck nearly cooed as he motioned for the other man to move ahead of him. They left the wagon bed, Yates leading the way while Wilmington grabbed another mug before they returned to where the other six men sat. They made certain that the fake Marshall was seated between Josiah and Buck, either man easily able to break the man’s back if necessary.
They passed the evening talking about past adventures and dividing their time between telling Yates to shut up and telling JD that his jokes weren’t funny. Vin and Chris were the first to call it a night, Larabee helped his friend back into the wagon, Tanner grumbling under his breath the entire time until he settled on the mattress. Chris, instructing the others that the last one to go to sleep call him for the watch, rolled into his bedroll away from the fire. The others, in deference to the sleeping men, lowered their voices. As time passed they even lost track of the fact that Yates was their prisoner rather than one of the gang.
In the darkest hour of the night, Chris was startled from sleep by a gunshot and the yells of his men. Leaping to his feet, he had his Colt in his hand before he was even fully awake. “What’s going on?!”
“Stop! Yates!” Buck called out, shooting into the darkness again. They all heard the cry and the sound of someone falling.
“Ah, hell!” Chris ran toward the sounds of pain, soon nearly falling over the wounded man. “Nathan, over here!”
A few minutes later, they carried Yates back to the fire, laying him out on the blankets that Vin had spread over the ground. All of them moved away, leaving Nathan to assess the man’s wounds. Chris turned on the others, fire in his eyes. “Who let him go?”
“Chris, we were just taking him back to the wagon when he up and started running.” Buck explained.
“If y’ wanna blame someone, blame me,” Vin said quietly. “I’m the one that insisted on ‘im joinin’ the party.”
“We’re all to blame,” Josiah said sagely. “We all lost sight of the goal tonight… focused too much on tomorrow.”
“Let’s worry about fixing blame later; I need some help over here if we’re gonna save this man’s life.” Nathan spoke from the fireside.
“How bad?” Chris asked.
“Bad enough. We’ve got to act fast if we’re gonna keep him from bleedin’ to death.” Jackson said as he came to join them. Quickly he gave them orders, depending on the other men to follow them. Soon the darkness was filled with more light as they built the fire up, and the sounds of men working in concert.
As the sun rose, they had done everything they could. While Yates was still breathing, he was also motionless and breathing shallowly.
“Can he be moved?” Buck asked the healer.
“I don’t think it’s gonna make a lot of difference.”
“What do you mean?” Chris questioned.
“I’ve done everything I can, but it’s not gonna be enough. He’s got some time left in him, but not more than a few days.”
Larabee took in the information and made a quick decision. “Load him up in the wagon, use the mattress and whatever else you can to make him comfortable. We’re heading into town.”
“Chris,” Vin began, a note of protest in his voice. “I don’t want him dyin’ ‘cause of me…”
“He’s dying anyway, Vin. I took your best chance away from you, but I’m damned if I’ll take away the last chance you have to clear your name.” Turning to the others, he said, “Let’s go.”
They rode as quickly as they could, balancing a need for speed against the need to keep the man in the back of the wagon alive. Vin, needing to do something other than sitting and watching the man die, drove the wagon. Nathan sat beside the injured man, doing everything he could to keep Yates alive. He looked up when, while they were stopped long enough to rest the animals, Josiah climbed into the wagon bed as well. With a nod, he returned to the task at hand.
“Has he been awake?” Sanchez asked.
“Off and on. Sometimes he knows where he is, others… well, he don’t.”
“Could I talk to him?”
“You can try.” Jackson rose and wandered to the tailgate, jumping to the ground and walking around to stretch his legs.
“Yates, can you hear me?” Josiah leaned forward, pitching his voice so that the prone man could hear him.
“No…” came a strained whisper.
“Not… not Yates.”
“Your name isn’t Yates?”
Shaking his head, the man said, “Cal… Calvin Hi-Higgins. Don’t wanna die… someone else’s… name…”
“I understand, son. What can I do to help ease your passing?”
Piercing him with a frightened, pain filled look, the dying man said softly, “Pray… for me.”
It was a quiet, determined group of men who entered Tascosa, Texas just as the sun reached its peak. One rider pulled ahead and turned in at the sheriff’s office. The others, surrounding a wagon, pulled in soon after, just as the sheriff exited the office behind the man in a rich, red coat.
“Yer friend here tells me y’ got a wanted man.” Sheriff Amos Clyde said without preamble.
“No, my dear sir, I said that we had someone who could clear a man wrongfully ac-“
“Shut up, y’ damn redbird, who is – Tanner!”
Vin looked down at the agitated man from where he sat in the wagon seat. “Afternoon, sheriff.”
“Sheriff, we’d love to chat, but right now we’ve got someone bleeding to death in the back of our wagon that can testify that Vin Tanner was framed in the death of Jess Kincaid.” Chris said in the soft but forceful tone that made anyone in hearing range sit up and listen.
“What’re you talkin’ about?” The sheriff stepped around to the side of the wagon, staring in shocked silence at the sight of Yates lying there, nearly bled white and moaning in pain.
Sitting next to the dying man, Josiah nudged the man. “Repent, son, while you still have the time to clear your conscience.”
Unfocused eyes opened, blindly staring at nothing. “E-Eli Joe Ch-Chavez… set T-Tanner up. V-Vin Tanner never… never even met… never met Jess Ki… Kincaid.” As the last syllable left his lips, Higgins took a final breath and went eternally still.
While Josiah said a prayer for the dead man, Vin asked the dumbfounded sheriff, “That enough t’ pull the poster on me?”
“If it isn’t, it’s a good start, Vin. I’ll do everything in my power to make certain that it is pulled.” The men turned toward the voice, smiling as they recognized Judge Orin Travis.
Vin smiled broadest of all. “Good t’ see y’, Judge.”
“Good to see you, too, son. Why don’t we go inside where we can talk without the audience?” They saw, then, that most of the town was standing around, watching the scene play out.
“Reckon that sounds like a good idea,” Vin said as he eased himself off the wagon seat, nearly falling when he hit the ground. Chris reached out to steady him, while Josiah handed him down his cane.
Frowning, Travis asked, “What happened?”
“Long story, sir,” Vin said as he balanced himself on the cane and slowly made his way forward, his friends surrounding him.
Epilog – Six months later
Vin hopped down from the buggy, reaching up to offer his hand to the young woman perched on the seat. Sadie Wills, the pretty, auburn haired seamstress that he had been interested since she had come to town over a year ago. Since returning to town with the specter of the hangman’s rope departed from his life, he had been seen in her company more and more frequently. Just as he lifted her to the ground, a call came from the livery.
“I was just about to saddle up and come looking for you.” Chris Larabee said as he emerged from the shadows of the stable.
“We got trouble?”
With a shake of his head, Chris held up a piece of paper. “Got this in the afternoon mail. It’s the official paperwork, Vin.”
“The… the paperwork?” Tanner turned white and looked as if he might faint.
“Oh, Vin! Is it… Mr. Larabee, is it…?” Sadie grasped Vin’s arm, a smile lighting her face.
A grin spreading across his handsome face, Chris nodded. “Yes, it is. Vin, you’re a free man.”
And suddenly, people stopped, turning in curiosity at the loud, joyous whoop of happiness that echoed throughout the small town.
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November 20, 2012