It was eerily quiet. Chris assumed he was the only one awake at this time of the morning. Usually, he sat outside the saloon or jail in the early morning hours silently drinking coffee with Vin as one by one the town began to stir. Of the seven, Chris and Vin were usually up earlier than most, unless one of the others had spent the night on watch. This morning was different. Vin was nowhere to be seen. Chris wondered briefly if the tracker had decided to wander out of town as he was apt to do upon occasion. Normally he wandered out to Chriss cabin or further afield when he felt the walls of the town closing in, but he was in the habit of telling someone where and when he was going. A movement near the livery caught his eye. It almost made him spill his coffee as he dropped the chair in which he had been leaning back with a thud to the boardwalk.
"Something wrong?" asked Josiah as he approached Chris from the opposite side. He turned and looked at the oddity at which Chris was staring.
Ezra Standish, their gambler friend, was up at six o'clock in the morning. It was an astonishing fact. What was even more astonishing was that he was wearing a brown, rustic looking jacket not his usual snappy attire. If his two friends hadnt recognized the familiar ease with which Ezra rode his horse, they would have thought someone was stealing it. He rode out to the west with yet another rider. It was Vin Tanner.
"Now thats a sight you dont see every day," remarked Josiah as he took the seat next to Chris.
"Ezra in brown? Or Ezra with Vin?" Chris grinned at Josiah.
The preacher acknowledged the still growing friendship between the two very diverse men. "They do make an interesting pair. I wonder what they're up to?"
"I dont know, but it has got to be more interestin than what weve done lately."
"I dont know, Chris. Ive been enjoying the peace and quiet weve had lately. No ones been hurt; towns been quiet."
"Too quiet. Almost makes you think all hells about to break loose."
"Whos hell yall talkin bout?" Nathan joined the two men. He stretched until it sounded like his bones were popping.
"Chris was remarkin that he felt like this quiet weve been enjoyin is the lull before the storm." Josiah answered Nathan.
"It has been kinda borin what with the twins gone home and all."
The three men laughed as they shared their private joke. "They were somethin else, but they were also the prettiest little mischief makers I have ever seen in my life."
"Them? They sure worked a number on us, didnt they?" Nathan was always one to go straight to the heart of the matter.
"They had all of us wrapped around their grubby little fingers, didnt they?" Chris smiled just thinking about the effect the Terrell twins had had on the seven men of Four Corners. "Vin and Ezra specially."
"JD, too. Remember Buck tellin John that he should marry them off to all three of his girls?" Nathans grin grew as Josiah and Chris started laughing.
"What about Vins face when Ezra told the twins highest card got to keep him?" Josiah joined in on the fun.
Chris stopped laughing, and his face suddenly took on a serious look. "Maybe those two miss those little girls more than they want to admit. They sure have been talkin about somethin lately. Almost like theyre plottin."
"Vin and Ezra? Aint nobody round here right now Ezra would waste a con on, and Vin dont con people." Nathan was puzzled by what Chris had just said.
"What do you mean, Chris?"
"Well, you notice that every once in a while you can catch em talkin, but when you walk up they stop and ask somethin totally off the wall? They just look like theyre up to something." Chris couldnt quite put his finger on it, but it was almost as if Vin was doing something both he and Ezra knew Chris wouldnt like. It was beginning to drive the former gunslinger crazy. He had this feeling that something was going on right under his nose, but he had absolutely no clue what it was.
It really irked him that for once he couldnt tell what Vin Tanner was thinking. Usually, it only took a look, maybe a word, or even a gesture, and Chris would know immediately. Lately, however, he saw something lurking behind those expressive blue eyes that indicated that Vin was doing something that he didnt want his friend to know about. What really got Chris was that Vin knew that no matter how curious he was, Chris wasnt the type to butt into someone elses business. Vin was using that to his advantage right now. Vin knew Chris wouldnt ask because that would open him up to questions from Vin. Fair was fair, and Vin Tanner would consider it his right to ask Chris about something Chris didnt necessarily want to discuss with anyone if Chris started questioning what Vin did. So he would just give Chris a blank look whenever Chris just happened upon any discussion Vin and Ezra were having.
Josiah looked pensively at Chris patiently waiting for the usually quiet man to get whatever it was bothering him out in the open. Chris Larabee wasnt much in the habit of talking to people about how he felt or what he thought, but Josiah knew him well enough to know that this was really bothering him. Chris trusted Vin like he would his own brother, and he was beginning to trust Ezra just as much. For Chris to voice his concern that the two were up to something must mean that there was something that Josiah had apparently missed. Josiah trusted Chriss instincts implicitly, and his own even more. He looked over at Nathan to see that even the healer had noticed something.
"What is it, brother?" Josiah encouraged Nathans opinion.
"Well, I noticed them lookin at a map the other day, but Vin just folded it up when I walked up. They kinda hemmed and hawed when I asked what they were lookin at."
"Really?" Josiah was intrigued now.
So was Nathan for that matter. "You think Buck or JD might know?
"One of them might know where Vin and Ezra are goin this mornin, but I doubt they know any more than we do. Lets keep quiet and see what happens. If theyre up to somethin I doubt if its anythin we cant handle, could be nothin at all."
"Josiahs right, Chris. Lets wait and keep an eye on em. If youre worried that Vins doin too much, hes all healed from that gunshot to the liver. Hes put back on most of that weight he lost, and so long as he dont go standin in front of any more bullets, he should be fully recovered by now, and Ezras already back to where he was fore he was shot."
Chris nodded at his two friends. He knew they were just as protective of the other members of their group as he was.
"Then, we'll just keep an eye out and see if we can figure out what those two are up to."
Josiah gave his leader a knowing look, "Makes you nervous, them two schemin together?"
"Damn right!" Nathan and Josiah started laughing at Chriss succinct answer. He joined them as they walked over to the now opened hotel dining room for breakfast.
* * * * * * *
Vin and Ezra made good time as they rode to an area about five miles from town. The sun was just warming up after a cool spring evening. The area was singularly lacking in anything appealing. There was no water, no vegetation to speak of, and even less than a few insects. It was, in effect, deserted. Before time and weather had eroded it away, it had been part of a mighty outcropping of rock. Now it looked more like a solid overhang of rock that served as shelter from the harsh sun.
Few people had any reason to travel this way, so neither man was too worried about being discovered. They had told JD the night before that they would be gone most of the day. Then, they had both left the saloon heading in opposite directions to avoid answering any questions, answers that might get back to Chris. They werent doing anything illegal, but they both had an idea that had been dancing around in their heads since an earlier and thoroughly unpleasant incident. Each man had been surprised that the other had had the same idea. However, as they had talked while Vin was recovering from the wound he had received months earlier protecting the Terrell twins, the idea had begun to take shape. They hadnt told anyone about it because Chris wasnt going to like it at all. Nathan and Josiah would probably side with Chris and voice their disapproval. Buck and JD, well they werent sure about them, but they had decided to keep it between the two of them.
When all was ready and they were sure it would work, then Vin and Ezra would tell the others. Maybe. Then again, maybe they would wait until an opportunity arose and they could demonstrate their idea. It really was a very good idea, one that would prove quite handy when facing great odds. The seven men had faced terrific odds time and again, but Ezra had pointed out to Vin that one day the odds would not fall so favorably on their side. They needed something that could be used in just such a case, and Vin had agreed with Ezra. He had seen too many good men lose their lives when Lady Luck turned her back on them.
Vin had chosen this spot near the overhanging rock where there was one lone and very dead tree. It had petrified over the years, but it made a good hitching post for the two horses. The rocky overhang was to their right, almost behind them. It would serve to redirect part of the sound away from the town for what the two had planned.
"I trust, my friend, that we are far enough from civilization that we will not be discovered and bring the wrath of Mr. Larabee down upon our heads?" Ezra was half-kidding and half-serious.
Vin looked over at Ezra and grinned. It made his eyes twinkle in merriment as he answered, "They might hear somethin but not enough to cause anyone to come lookin. You able to get past Chris without him seeing you?"
"I assure you, I am quite adept at exiting any structure without detection, unlike some people with whom I am acquainted." Ezra sighed, and raised an eyebrow in mock sincerity as Vin scowled at him.
"One time I get caught, and yall are never gonna let me live it down." Vin waited for Ezra to throw in that this would be the last time one of his friends would remind him how hed fallen asleep on the bench outside the saloon after hed snuck out of the hotel. He had thought that he had been so clever that night, but hed been concentrating so hard just to get across the street, that he never noticed Nathan watching him. However, Ezra didnt look like he was going to let Vin off the hook so easily.
"Oh, you are referring to your unfortunate accident when the twins were here. I was referring to the time you decided to visit Mrs. Wells when you had that nasty abscess." Ezras gold tooth flashed in the sunlight as he grinned at Vin.
Vin decided he could join his companions good mood, or he could slow their growing friendship by getting angry. Once he thought about, it really was funny. Here he was the best tracker in these parts, and he couldnt manage to shake his own friends long enough to get some peace and quiet. He shook his head and laughed as he tossed the bag he was carrying to Ezra.
"Shut the hell up, and get the stuff out. Ill get my rifle."
The now laughing gambler caught the bag with exaggerated care. "It will be my pleasure, Mr. Tanner."
Vin waved Ezra off as he took his rifle from his saddle. "Whatd ya want to start with?"
While Ezra and Vin were busy putting their scheme into action, JD was looking for Chris. He found him in the hotel finishing breakfast with the other members of their group. Buck had joined them shortly after they had entered the hotel. He was regaling the other men with tales of the exploits the day before out at the Darcy spread. Chris signaled the waitress to get JDs breakfast as he pushed out a chair for him as JD approached.
"Lord, you should have seen the way she carried on. That little mare was bound and determined that ole Tom Darcy wasnt gonna ride her, much less put that saddle on her. He was ready to call it quits, when Ezra pipes up. He bets ole Darcy that Vin and JD can have her broke and ready to ride in an hour."
"That the same horse Caseys been wantin?" Nathan had been present the day Casey had described the beautiful blood bay mare.
"You win the bet, JD?" Chris was enjoying the story.
"Nah, that wasnt the bet. Ezra asked for Mr. Darcy to let me buy it for half what he wanted. He said he wasnt much of a gamblin man. Cept he was so sure no one could break her if he couldnt, that he said if me or Vin could ride her within the hour, we could have her."
Since JDs breakfast had arrived, Buck took the tale up again. "Yeah, Darcy said that there wasnt a horse he couldnt break and told JD and Vin to have a go at her. Ezra started taking bets from the cowhands."
Nathan snorted, "That manll go to his grave gamblin."
"Yeah, but is he good at it!" Josiah winked at Nathan. They all started laughing.
When the laughter had died down, Chris nodded to Buck to continue. "You shoulda seen em. Vin walked up to that mare talking real low and slow. She went right to him, and he motioned to JD to bring the blanket. Vin just kept talkin to her, an then he let JD start doin the same, all the while lettin her sniff them and the blanket. She stood real still when JD slipped it on her back."
"I knew Vin had a way with horses, but JD, whend you start developin this talent?" Chris looked over at the youngest member of their group.
"Think hes been holdin out on us, brother?"
"Ah Josiah, I worked with horses back in Boston. Vins the only one who ever asked if I could do anything with em but ride em."
"Well, well, were gonna have to keep a closer eye on you JD. Got any more surprises we should know about?" Chris grinned to make sure JD knew he was being teased. He beamed at Larabees next statement. "So how long before the two of you swindled Darcy out of his mare?"
Buck had to continue the tale. He was fairly bursting with pride over the exploits of his two young friends. "Vin got the saddle on her and then just mounted real easy like. That little mare walked around that corral like shed been carrying people all her life. Then Tom says hed expect someone who lived with Indians to be able to sweet talk that mare, but what about a city boy? Hell Chris, itd taken all of 15 minutes fore Vin rode that mare. Vin just smiled and got down. He handed the reins to JD, and JD jumped up on that little mare quicker n lightnin."
"I take it JD made Darcy eat crow?" asked Chris.
"Eat crow, hell, Darcy ate crow and Ezra collected almost thirty dollars from three of the ranch hands dumb enough to bet."
"Was Darcy mad?" Nathan was worried about any future retaliation.
"Mad? Nathan, he was so impressed, he asked Vin and JD to come back and help break the rest of the horses. When they offered to pay Darcy for that mare, he just said if theyd help break the other ten he had, hed consider them even. Even Ezra promised the first round of drinks were on him the next time the hands come into town. Everyone was just as happy as could be."
"Not everyone was happy, Buck." JD spoke up then.
"Sure they were, kid."
"What do you mean, JD?" Chris was always alert to any potential danger.
"Yeah, everyone was havin a good time. Who wasnt? Someone say somethin to you?" Buck hadnt heard any negative comments.
"Well, this one guy who lost money to Ezra kinda gave Vin a dirty look and made some comment about him bein an Indian lover."
"Which one?" Buck had totally missed this exchange. "I didnt hear that. Whatd Vin say?"
"Ah, you know, Vin just stared at the guy until he shut up and walked off. TJ and Ezra saw it, and Ezra asked Mr. Darcy who he was."
"Who was he JD?" It was Josiah showing concern now. They knew most of the men who worked for Tom Darcy and knew the man was fair and didnt tolerate nonsense from anyone.
"Mr. Darcy said he was just a drifter who needed a job. Said he knew the man came from Dodge City, but didnt know much else. Said he kept to himself mostly."
"Get a name for him?" Chris wanted to know as much about this man as possible. You never knew when some bounty hunter would show up and in what disguise.
"Name of Jim Gregson. You know him?"
"Never heard of him. Vin say anything about him?"
This was news to Buck. "Vin didnt say anything, but he hardly ever does. Does he even know how to complain?"
That cracked everyone up. Vin could complain loudly, and colorfully, too. They all remembered trying to keep him down until Nathan said he was healed from that gunshot wound to the liver. Chris shook his head and issued a short order.
"Keep an eye out, JD. I want to see what this guy looks like, ok?" JD nodded, then remembered why he was looking for Chris.
"Oh, fore I forget agin, Vin and Ezra said they needed to go out and wouldnt be back till late."
"Saw em leave this morning. Know where they went?"
"Didnt really say Chris. I figured they told you, so I didnt push it when they didnt tell me when I asked. Should I have asked again?" JD looked worried. He hated to disappoint Larabee.
"No," Josiah answered for Chris. "Our fearless leader here is worried bout what those two are up to."
"Ezra and Vin up to somethin?" Now JD was really confused. Buck wasnt.
"So, you been noticin how those two have been lately? They surely look like theyre up to somethin."
"Thats what hes afraid of." Nathan nodded in Chriss direction.
"Vin and Ezra wouldnt do nuthin wrong!" JD was indignant.
"Didnt say they were gonna do anything wrong, said they were schemin something." Buck threw a knowing look to the others.
"Why would them schemin," JD threw a thoroughly disgruntled look at Buck, "upset you, Chris?"
"Dont upset him, kid. Just causes ya to wonder what theyre up to." Nathan winked at Josiah.
"Huh? Vin wouldnt do nuthin wrong, and Ezra wouldnt even ask him." JD still couldnt believe that Chris would doubt Vin, and Ezra had proven over and over that he could be trusted.
"JD, I said I thought they were schemin somethin, not hatchin some evil plot." Chris had JDs immediate attention. "But what makes you think Vin is such a good man that he couldnt do somethin wrong?"
"But, Chris, hes your friend, sos Ezra!" JD was almost speechless.
"I aint sayin theyre doin any wrong. I just asked you why you thought Vin was so innocent. Hes a man, JD. A man can do wrong and still be a good man."
"Yeah, but Chris, Vins got the same code of honor as you." JD stopped as he remembered something.
"Hes got a code of honor; but, JD, his code of honor is his own, like we all have our own way of lookin at whats right. JD?" Chris realized that he had lost the kids attention. "JD, whered you go to?"
"Uh, well, uh," JD couldnt seem to answer.
"Well boy," Buck slapped JD on the back to help him out, "spit it out. Whats got you flustered all of a sudden?"
"I aint flustered, Buck. I just remembered somethin."
"What is it?" Josiah intentionally lowered his voice to a soothing tone.
"Well, fore they left, Vin took some stuff outta that bag that had the powder mans stuff in it." He wasnt ready for the explosion from Chris.
Slapping his hand down on the table, Larabee hissed, "I knew it! I just knew they were up to no good!"
"Now Chris, it dont mean theyre up to somethin." Nathan was trying to calm Chris down. Even Josiah looked worried now, but it was Buck who first thought of what had made Chris so angry. For some reason Chris rated dynamite right up there on his list with people who called him cowboy. Buck knew why, but no one else did.
"You dont think, nah Chris, they wouldnt, would they?"
"What kinda plan would need dynamite?" JD answered his own question. "You dont think theyre out to rob a bank, do you?" Poor JD didnt know whether to be excited or appalled. Why else would Vin and Ezra want explosives if not to blow something up? Something like a locked door or a bank vault.
"I dont think we should continue this conversation here, do you?" Josiah turned a pensive eye on their leader. The man in black, anger emanating from his very clothes, stood up abruptly and stalked out. He was headed for the jail. The curious people in the hotel and on the street took one look at his face and got out of Larabees way. The rest of his men followed without a word, Buck being the only one who had a clue as to why Chris Larabee would be so angry with two of the men he trusted with his life. Josiah and Nathan were beginning to get a clue, but JD was still lost in all the possibilities.
JD was the last to go in the jail and watched in silent wonder as Chris emptied the contents of the late powder mans bag on the table of the desk.
"What all did they take, Chris?" Josiah asked hoping to deflect some of the pent up rage oozing from the gunslingers very pores.
"Just the dynamite, right, Chris?" Buck knew exactly what they had taken.
Chris was just too angry to answer. He knew something was going on when Vin and Ezra had produced dynamite to stop the gang intent on kidnapping the Terrell twins, but he thought that his two powder men had lost interest in their new toys. He should have known better.
Ezra seemed to have an affinity for things that went boom, and Vin had always seemed just as fascinated, even appreciative of Ezras talents in that sphere. What they were up to he could only guess, but he knew what he was going to do to them if what he thought proved to be true. Hed always known his two friends had more in common than anyone thought, but hed always hoped their obvious differences would keep the deadly potential their similar minds possessed at bay. He looked at Buck, and the look on his face caused his oldest friend to burst into laughter. Vin and Ezra had managed to unleash the lethal explosive of Chris Larabees tightly controlled temper. All hell was about to break loose, and Buck planned to be there to witness the fireworks. Vin and Ezra had never been scared of Larabee, but they had always respected the man enough to never push him too far. Theyd done it this time, though. It was going to be a pleasure to see how the two, especially Vin, reacted to being on the other end of Larabees anger. This was going to be good.
"Lets go get the horses saddled, Nathan."
Josiah, sensing that two of the seven would soon need the help of a higher power, offered to get the supplies. His departure with Nathan and Buck was stopped when Chris didnt respond. The three men turned at the door to see a wide-eyed and open-mouthed JD staring at the black clad gunman. JD didnt know whether to ask what was going on or to follow the others to certain safety. Chriss temper finally found release in words, and JD stood where he was fascinated by words hed never heard used quite that way before. Larabee was threatening to do stuff to Vin and Ezra with dynamite that JD didnt think was possible, but he made a mental note to see just how many things Chris would be successful at. It would be educational, and Buck was always telling him to pay attention and learn. The other three started laughing at the colorful language pouring out of their leader.
"Who was it said Chris dont say more n two words a day?" Buck finally got the gunmans attention.
Josiah answered Bucks question with another question, "We goin after em?"
"No, lets wait and see what story they have for us when they get back." Chris had a grin on his face like a cat that had just finished off a bowl of heavy cream. "That is if Nathan dont have to sew some fingers and toes back on."
"Sew em up? I aint sewing nothin back on them two idiots blow off themselves!" Nathan was just as angry as Chris was. Why any sane person wanted to play with dynamite was beyond him. He had seen too many men disfigured and dismembered by explosives during the war. He would help Chris with Vin and Ezra when they got back. That con man had better be up to some real fancy talking if he was going to keep Vin and himself out of trouble.
"Cmon, lets go to the saloon." Josiah and Buck made way as Chris finally led the way out of the door. Larabee stalked toward the saloon heedless of anyone or anything in the street. Nathan and JD closely followed him. Buck and Josiah looked at one another and grinned.
I wouldnt want to be those two."
"Me neither, brother. Me neither." Josiah shook his head as Buck waved him through the door before him.
If only Vin and Ezra had known what kind of hornets nest theyd stirred up, they might not have been so loath to quit while they were ahead. Blissfully unaware that a whirlwind named Larabee was waiting in town for them, they kept practicing their latest brainstorm.