~ CHAPTER I ~
The seven keepers of Four Corners were out of town for a few days. Judge Travis asked the hired men to escort Jim Toliver, the new territorial governor, out of town. He had to make a stop at the location of the new railroad and head back to the territorial capitol. Several threats had been made against his life. Governor Toliver asked Judge Travis for the protection; hence, the accompaniment of the seven. The territorial capitol was a three-day ride from Four Corners; it would be six days total. Judge Travis stayed in Four Corners while the men were gone, hoping nothing serious happened before they return. The first two days went uneventful. On the third day, a buckskin clad blonde woman rode into town. Her eyes were as blue as the sky above on a clear Spring day. She hid her fair complexion beneath a broad brimmed hat. Her long blonde tresses free flowing behind her. At not more than 5'5", she appeared to set tall on the back of the muscular steed she rode down the boulevard. She had been the only visitor, save one, to Four Corners in two weeks. Governor Tolliver, being the only other visitor.
The mysterious young woman guided her horse, a black and white Paint, to the hotel. She dismounted, removed her belongings and headed into the establishment in search of a room.
"Good day, Sir," she greeted the man behind the counter.
"Good day, Ma'am," he responded.
"I would like to have a room that overlooks the main street," the slender blonde requested.
"Yes, Ma'am, that'd be room seven," he told her while handing her a key and the register book.
He watched as she signed her name to room seven - "SAMMI JENNINGS".
He made a mental note of the woman's name, for he knew someone would be in to ask of her. He also made mental notes of the color of her eyes, the beauty in her soft expression and the gentleness of her demeanor. Yes, he thought, someone is bound to be asking about this little filly.
+ + + + + + +
Outside the hotel, the townsfolk exchanged opinions of the girl. The womenfolk gathered a few blocks down from the hotel.
"Mary, did you see her?" Mrs. Potter asked Mary Travis.
"Yes, I did," Mary answered.
"Who do you think she is?" another woman, Sarah, asked.
"I don't know, but any woman who rides and dresses like a man can't be any good," Mrs. Billings remarked.
"Excuse me?" Casey Wells exclaimed. "Are you trying to tell me something? I sometimes wear pants and ride like a man, as you put it."
"Well, I just don't think it's ladylike to go around in men's britches or trousers. And side-saddle is the only proper way for lady to ride one of those beasts," Mrs. Billings criticized as she pointed to the black and white Paint.
The conversation continued in this catty manner between the women. Meanwhile, across the street from the hotel, the menfolk were teasing each other as to who would approach her first.
"All I can say is we better get to her before Buck Wilmington gets back," Elijah, a tall well-built blonde man, commented.
"So, who's gonna go ask the old man her name and room number?" Willy, who's slightly shorter than Elijah and rather slender, asked.
"Not me," Daniel, a dark-haired man, withdrew.
Me neither; she looks like she could probably do us in if she wanted to," Bob, a slightly paunchy man, also backed down.
"Cowards!" Elijah accused.
"I don't know, Elijah; I think those boys got a point," Judge Travis observed as he strolled up to the men.
"I think we should wait; see if she sticks around 'til Buck gets back. Let him make the first move, and see how he does." Bob stated.
"I still think y'all are cowards. I'll go ask," Elijah finally affirmed.
"I think it's a mistake, Elijah," Daniel again cautioned.
"Really! Why do y'all think Buck can handle her? I can handle any woman Buck can handle," Elijah said in disgust as he stormed off heading towards the hotel.
"She's gonna eat 'im alive, Judge," Willy finally spoke up. "I don't know if Buck could handle her, either."
"Well, maybe she'll be gone by the time they come back," the judge commented.
Sammi stepped out of the hotel long enough to bring her horse to the livery stable. On the way back, she met up with Elijah.
"Ma'am," Elijah greeted tipping her hat among the whispers of the on-looking town.
Sammi ignored himand kept walking towards the hotel.
Elijah grabbed her arm and spun her around, hoping to place his lips on hers, as he growled, "Who do you think you are? You think you're too good for me?"
Instead of a kiss, he was greeted with the barrel of her gun.
"Don't ever attempt that again!" Sammi warned.
The silence amid the town was deafening. The judge watched carefully as Sammi uncocked her gun and headed into the hotel. Elijah slinked out of sight in embarrassment.
The next several days were nearly as uneventful as the previous days. The day Sammi Jennings arrived was the most interesting as of yet. Several suitors had attempted to make Miss Jenning's acquaintance; yet, she rejected all efforts. She rarely ventured out except to tend to her horse, take a walk and listen to the townsfolk as they chattered about her and the return of their seven protectors. She could sometimes be seen gazing out her hotel room window down the main street.
The judge watched the young woman carefully. She never interfered with life as it was in Four Corners. She kept to herself - observing. He wondered why she was there; what did she want? She never attempted to start a business, work or court any of the town's bachelors. This night he watched from the front porch of the jail as she quietly made her way through town into the hotel for the evening. He knew the boys would be back tomorrow. He wondered what the day would bring, if any of the seven knew her and if this was what she was waiting for.
~ CHAPTER 2 ~
Chris, Buck, Vin, Ezra, Josiah, Nathan and JD rode into town during the wee hours of the morning. After their all night ride, they freshened up with a bath to ease their aching muscles and some clean clothes. They each took a short nap before the sun rose and the town awakened.
Chris was first to awaken. He treaded over to the jail just as JD and Buck also arrived. Josiah could be seen making his way from the church. The four men greeted Judge Travis on the front porch of the jail.
"Chris, JD, Buck, Josiah," Judge Travis greeted.
"Judge," Chris nodded.
"How'd it go?" the judge asked.
"Good," the black-clad man responded.
Vin and Ezra along with Nathan could be seen going into the tavern for breakfast. They were greeted at the door by Inez and seated at a table. Sammi Jennings also ventured out for her usual morning stroll to the livery stable to tend to her stallion.
"Um, Judge, who might that beautiful creature be?" Buck queried following Sammi with his eyes.
"Her name's Sammi Jennings. She came to town a few days ago. She doesn't mingle much with the townsfolk. She just comes out every mornin' for a stroll, tends to her horse, eats and quietly sits in the tavern or on the porches of various buildings. She rarely speaks to folks; keeps to herself a lot. Elijah and several others have tried to court her, but she has discouraged all of them," the judge explained.
"Maybe she needs Buck to break her," JD ribbed.
"What d'ya think, Buck?" Chris, too, teased his friend.
Josiah just smiled a daring smile at Buck.
"Are y'all daring me to take a shot at this dame?" Buck playfully teased back.
"Buck, be careful. We still don't know much about her, except she pulled a gun on Elijah when he first attempted to court her," Judge Travis warned with a touch of fatherly advise.
Buck nodded at the judge and turned his attention back towards the slim blonde beneath the broad brimmed hat. His eyes ravished her from head to toe imagining how sweet her lips would taste against his. He envisioned her slender body firmly in his grasp; the feel of her soft skin in his rough hands.
Buck heard his name, but could not respond.
He now saw Chris taunting him. Chris was waving his hand in front of buck's face and calling to distract him.
"What!" Buck finally managed to respond.
"Try introducing yourself before undressing her," Chris grinned at his old friend.
"Ha! Ha!" Buck answered sarcastically.
Sammi had begun the trek from the livery to the tavern. She stopped abruptly when she noticed the newcomers in town. She watched carefully as Buck made his way toward her. Chuckles and murmurs could be heard as Buck breezed by groups of people standing or walking about town. He paid no attention to the jeers he received as he passed them.
"Ma'am," he greeted Sammi.
Sammi, as she did to all her suitors, remained silent allowing only her steel blue eyes to penetrate Buck. This made him a little uneasy, but he continued to court her.
"Ma'am, may I buy you su'um to eat?" Buck questioned not letting her know her gaze was affecting him.
Sammi again said nothing; she merely walked around him and continued on her way.
While Buck was attempting to entice the young woman to spend some time with him, Ezra, Vin and Nathan left the tavern and headed for the jail.
"Hi, y'all," Vin greeted those already present at the jail.
"Mornin'," the judge greeted the three men.
"Who's Buck seducin' now," Nathan asked pointing to the couple making their way toward the tavern.
"He's lookin' for trouble," Judge Travis warned.
Vin said nothing as he studied the young woman.
"She's quite an attractive lady," Ezra observed.
"Buck'll git her!" JD assured.
"Don't be so sure," the judge countered.
"I assure you, Judge, if anyone individual can arouse the desire for sexual contentment in a fair beauty of the opposite sex, it would unquestionably be Buck Wilmington," Ezra replied.
"Maybe, we'll see," Judge Travis answered, his gaze fully on Buck and Sammi.
"Judge?" Vin finally spoke up.
The judge turned to the quiet man, momentarily; then, he returned his gaze to the pair, never batting an eye elsewhere.
"What is it, Vin?" the judge responded.
"You know her name?" Vin questioned still staring in Sammi's direction
Chris put his hands on Vin's shoulders and teased, "What's the matter, Vin? You like what you see?"
Vin ignored the taunting of his friend and the laughter of the other men, "Judge, do you know her name?"
Vin's tone was a little more serious, and his attention was now fully on the judge.
"She checked into the hotel using the name Sammi Jennings," the judge answered Vin with concern in his eyes. "You know her, Vin?" he then asked after a brief pause.
"Samantha," Vin whispered just loud enough for the others to hear.
The five men and Judge Travis looked at one another and then at Vin.
"Vin, who is she?" Chris asked, the tone in his voice more concerned.
"She's an old friend," that's all Vin would say as he stared in her direction.
"Is she dangerous, Vin," Judge Travis inquired.
"She can be," Vin responded, nearly whispering.
Vin's gaze was troubling to the others. At that precise moment, Sammi's eyes wandered up toward the jail. She was growing weary of her constant companion - Buck. Her blue gaze was met by Vin's equally hypnotic gaze. Sammi began to take her steps briskly in the direction of Vin. They greeted upon her arrival at the jail. Buck was quickly on her heels.
"It's been a long time," Sammi's eyes sparkled as she greeted Vin.
"Yea, it has," he acknowledged as he became enchanted by the pools of blue that have always captivated him.
"Why are you here?" Vin asked urging her to continue speaking as he knew what would happen if she quit.
"I came to see you, darlin'" Sammi murmured as she pressed her sleek frame against Vin's.
She began to twirl his hair between the fingers of her left hand. He put a gentle hand around her waist and touched her just beneath her chin bringing her close to his lips for a soft kiss. Sammi obliged. While the pair kissed, Sammi moved her right hand down his neck, barely touching the skin; yet, enough to send shivers down the ex-bounty hunter. She then slowly caressed his chest continually bringing her hand lower and lower. She and Vin had known each other for some time. Vin helped her in her time of need. She knew there was only one way to catch him off guard - distraction. Sexual distraction. As she lowered her hands down his tense body, he quivered beneath her touch. Not a word was spoken, but soft, sweet kisses continued to seduce the man. Her gentle hands arrived at Vin's waist. With a quick motion of Sammi's swift hands, she removed Vin's gun from his holster, pointing at his stomach.
"Now, gentlemen," she addressed the other men, "drop your weapons and kick them in my direction."
"Ma'am, I don't know what you're attempting to pull off here, but it won't work," Judge Travis informed as he removed his gun.
"Judge, I would think you would know. Of course, I would think you would've had this man arrested by now," Sammi snidely remarked.
"You're after the bounty, ain't ya?" Vin questioned his old friend.
"Look, Vin, I'm sorry it has to be this way, but $500 is $500," she remarked.
"Some friend," Chris snapped.
"You, what's your name," Sammi nodded towards Ezra.
"Ezra Standish, Ma'am," Ezra quickly replied not wanting to find out how good an aim this lady was.
"Well, Mr. Standish, gather these men's guns. Everyone get inside, now," Sammi ordered.
The eight men entered the jail followed by Sammi and Vin's loaded weapon.
"Judge, lock Mr. Tanner in one of them cells," she dictated.
"A lady bounty hunter! Well, if that don't beat all; what's this world coming to," Buck observed.
"Keep quiet. Now, I want someone to retrieve Mr. Tanner's horse and my own. Mine is the black and white Paint in the livery stable. Bring the horses, ready to ride, to the front of the jail," Sammi requested of the men.
Nathan volunteered, as Ezra was busy locking their guns in the safe per Sammi's instructions. JD went with Nathan. Vin remained silent waiting a better time to ask Sammi why she had turned on him. Chris was uneasy about the situation, but was unsure as to just how he could remedy the predicament they all seem to be in.
"Don't hurt her, Chris," Vin pleaded to his friend. Chris sat beside the cell that confined Vin.
"When we leave, keep your distance like you did when Eli Joe came for me. Let me talk to her first. Please, Chris, she's not a bad person. I know deep down there must be su'um wrong. Let me talk to her," Vin implored.
Ezra had joined Chris beside Vin.
"What d'ya think, Ezra; think we should do as he asks?"
"Well, I don't suppose it would be too hazardous," Ezra agreed with Vin.
Within the hour, JD and Nathan had gathered the horses.
"Miss Jennings, the horses are outside," Nathan informed as he re-entered the jail.
"Judge, could you please bring Mr. Tanner to his horse, and help him mount?" she requested.
The judge, Chris and Ezra did as she asked. Vin was helped up on his horse; his hands remained tied. Sammi, too, mounted her steed. She gathered the reins of Vin's horse and bid the remaining men a farewell. Mary Travis, meanwhile, had approached the group. The townsfolk also had taken an interest in the activity at the jail.
"Chris, ain't y'all gonna stop her?" Mary questioned.
"No, he don't want us to," Chris responded.
"She gets him back to Texas, and they'll hang 'im," JD worried.
"We're gonna follow them…at a distance," Chris informed, "in case Vin needs help with her. He wants time to find out why she's turning him in."
"I hope he'll be alright," Mary thought aloud.
"Don't fret, Mrs. Travis, we shall let no harm come to Mr. Tanner," Ezra assured a she mounted his horse.
The other five men followed suit and mounted their horses. They all headed out of town in the direction of Vin and Sammi Jennings.
~ CHAPTER 3 ~
The six men kept their distance from their friend and the lady bounty hunter. In silence, they watched as they crossed many miles over dusty plains and baron land. Stopping each nightfall, making camp at a distance, to rejuvenate their tired, exhausted muscles for another full days ride. Conversation was at minimal between both groups. Vin attempted to get Sammi to explain herself; yet, his attempts seemed, so far, in vain. The six men following busied themselves with concocting plans to free Vin before and after the two made it back to Tuscosa. Sammi had planned to tell Vin of her plan, but not yet. It was still too soon. She needed to be sure they were far enough along that Vin would not escape her and go back. How was she going to convince him to ride with her instead of as her prisoner? Vin and Sammi traveled out of the plains to the foothills; although, some of the hills seemed to be mountains themselves. If it weren't for the circumstances, the ride would have been a dream for most - a beautiful day, beautiful country and a beautiful woman. The gentle sounds of nature added to the serenity of the moment. Out in the midst of nature, Vin now felt he had been cooped up in a town too long. He remembered how he liked to sit by a running stream, watch some critter come for a drink - always cautious of their human companion. He liked being part of something - the sense of belonging - almost family-like. Yet, he felt at home here, too, in the wilderness. Could he have been on his own too long? The thoughts and peacefulness he was enjoying ended with the thunderous crack of gunshot and the burning sensation seared his flesh. His left hand instinctively rose to his chest. On the right side of his chest, his fingers felt the warmth of the red liquid that was now soaking through his shirt. Sammi spun her horse around, having already checked for any unfelt, possibly numb, wounds on herself.
"Vin! Are you alright?" she questioned nervously.
"I dunno yet," Vin responded staring at his blood drenched hand.
The sun seemed to become so much brighter and almost blinding, and hotter as the realization came to him that maybe he wasn't all right. Sweat poured down his face and neck from his now sweat-drenched hair and from beneath his hat. Sammi led both horses to a shady spot between two fairly large boulders. She desperately helped Vin from his horse, resting him against a rock on the ground. Vin already began to feel weak. He took a deep breath, closed his eyes and leaned his head against the rock. His breathing became more and more laborious. While he rested, Sammi removed the clothing from his upper body. His body flinched as the blood flowed down his chest and abdomen. It almost tickled, that is, if the wound itself hadn't hurt so much. Sammi got a clean cloth from her saddlebags and soaked it with water from the nearby stream that Vin was daydreaming about earlier. She returned to find Vin breathing heavier, more deeply than before. She applied the damp cloth to his hot, sore flesh. He cringed and gasped under the intense pain.
"Vin?" she questioned with concern in her voice.
"Yea?" he gasped, clutching to every breath as he squeezed his eyes closed tighter.
"How deep is the bullet?" she said as she held his head against her shoulder.
"Deep. Can't breathe good," he coughed as he tried to draw in fresh air. "Yer gonna have to get the bullet out and stop the bleedin'," he again gasped for air, "startin' to get the taste of blood," his warnings put fear in Sammi's heart that she hadn't felt since her fiancé's murder.
"I've never cut that deep into anyone, Vin. You'll surely die if I try," she tried to reason with him, fearing she'd do him more harm.
"No choice. Gonna die if you don't anyway," his voice pleading with her to try.
Chris and the others had also heard the gunshot; they spurred their horses in that direction fearing this lady bounty hunter decided to take Vin in dead, rather than alive. Different scenarios wrecked havoc with each man's psyche. None of them willing to admit Vin may be lying dead somewhere, or his body being dragged.
"Maybe a wild animal got too close to them," JD thought aloud.
No one responded. The hooves of the horses seemed to get faster. The rhythm of the pounding of their feet to the ground emanated the throbbing in each man's chest as they raced to the sight of the shooting. Drops of blood could be seen along the path Vin and his horse had taken. The six men looked frantically in all directions, catching a glimpse of a man, high up n a hilltop, turn his horse out of sight.
"Damn!" Chris exclaimed, "Where the hell are they?"
"There!" Ezra yelled as he pointed to Sammi waving her arms about attempting to gain their attention.
Sammi, too, had seen the man ride off. She'd hoped Vin's friends would come help them before taking off after the figure on the hill. She was right. Six men loyal enough to follow after Vin were not about to let him die. A slight joy came over her. They did as she wished. They rode towards her.
Nathan quickly knelt over Vin.
"He says he's having trouble breathin', that the bullet's deep. I've never fished out a bullet that deep," Sammi admitted apologetically.
"That's aw'ight; we'll see what we can do," Nathan responded quickly almost brushing her off.
Sammi rose to her feet and walked over to Chris. Ezra stood nearby. He knew Chris would be fuming. He knew the anger and frustration were building; it was only a matter of time before Chris would seemingly explode. Heaven help her when he did.
"Mr. Larabee, I know this probably won't mean much, but I'm sorry Vin was shot," Sammi apologized.
Everyone was silent, awaiting Chris' response, fearing what his anger might push him to do.
"Sorry?" he finally responded, his eyes fiery with hatred. "He figured you to be his friend. If he dies, it will be on your head, woman," he growled at Sammi while clutching her arm.
Tears began to fill her blue eyes from the pain of the tall man's grasp, his stabbing words and for Vin.
"You don't understand," her voice quivered.
"I don't give a damn, lady! Nothing in this life is worth betraying a friend. Nothing. As far as I'm concerned, you can burn in hell for your actions here. I, for one, will never forgive your actions!" Chris declared as he released her arm and walked away.
Ezra knew how hard Chris would take Vin's death. Ezra knew, for as close as he and Vin had become, that he would be able to deal with it better, or so he thought. It was just his personality. Ezra, then, took it upon himself to smooth things over between his strong-willed, sometimes obstinate, friend and this woman that Vin so completely trusts.
"Miss Jennings, I don't suppose you'd like to explain this little escapade of yours?" Ezra interrogated, rather mildly as he wiped the tears away from her cheeks with his thumbs.
"It's a long story," she confided.
"You will learn I can be an extraordinary listener, my dear," Ezra informed her.
"Well, I never planned to bring Vin in for the bounty on his head. You see, Vin helped me once when my fiancé, William Mercer, was murdered. Will was a bounty hunter. He and Vin knew each other well. Will had some land in Palo Pinto County in Texas that had water on it. Land in Texas with water makes you rich." Others begin to gather to listen to her story, including Chris. "If you have water rights, you can charge others to graze their herds on your land. Well, John Killjoy, a cattle baron, exhausted many efforts trying to get Will to sell the land; so, he would have water rights. Will refused to sell and the war between them began. Will and I were to be married in the Spring. Mr. Killjoy had his men, led by a cold-hearted murderer named Joe Barrett, kill Will one day while he tended the flock of sheep he had acquired. He had decided to give up bounty hunting when he asked me to marry him. I don't know if y'all know this, but cattle and sheep don't mix in Texas. Many a sheep farmer has been shot because his sheep have eaten all the vegetation clear to the root. This was just one more reason why Mr. Killjoy hated Will and wanted to run him off. Will had already made a will that left the land and sheep to me in the event of his untimely demise. He told me to wire Vin if anything were to happen to him; so, I did. Vin came by to help me out, and we thought we had chased them off. I hired some Mexicans to look after the flock while I tried to make some extra money bounty huntin'. Will had taught me to track real good. Vin helped by bringing those I caught in for the bounty. A lot of times a woman can't collect the bounty on a man. Sheriff's usually take the credit and the bounty. Vin would always give me the money. We made a good team. Mr. Killjoy has had most of my flock slaughtered. I need money to keep the place going. I came to vin for help."
"Why, may I ask, didn't you merely request his services instead of incarcerating him?" Ezra asked.
"I was afraid he'd say 'no'," she sighed.
"It doesn't sound like he ever has before. Why did you think he would now?" Josiah tried to reason.
"He once told me to just sell it and move on, but I couldn't. It's all I have left of Will. Now…now, I don't know. The man on the hill that shot Vin, that was Barrett. He has a $500 bounty on his head, too. I knew he'd follow me, but I figured we'd get him first," Sammi explained.
"Does Vin know all this?" Buck asked.
"Not yet; I didn't get to tell him," she responded.
Chris remained silent through the interrogation of Miss Jennings. He figured his friends were doing a decent job of questioning her.
"Exactly at which instant had you proposed to inform him?" Ezra queried.
"I dunno," she began as tears again welled up in her eyes, "I wasn't sure when I could be sure he'd stay."
Just then, Nathan joined them.
"How is he?" she quickly questioned.
"He's gonna need a lot of rest. He's lost a lot of blood. We'll have to wait and see. We'll have to stay here until he's ready to travel," Nathan explained. "The bullet pierced his right lung. He's having difficulty breathing, but with proper rest and no infections, he might pull through."
~ CHAPTER 4 ~
The warmth of the day soon cooled with nightfall. They had no choice but to light a fire to keep Vin warm. Sitting around the fire, the discussion covered keeping Vin safe to catching Joe Barrett. It was decided that Nathan would stay with Vin, and JD would stay to aid Nathan. JD argued that he wanted to help, but Chris explained he'd be of more help if he could stay with Nathan. He finally agreed. Chris rarely spoke to Sammi as tensions were obviously high. Ezra deemed himself mediator. Chris didn't want to admit they needed her to track down Barrett as much as she needed them. He definitely was not about to let this Joe Barrett get away with shooting, possibly killing, Vin.
When breakfast broke the next morning, Chris, Ezra, Buck, Josiah along with Sammi left the campsite for Mr. Barrett. JD and Nathan tended to the camp and to Vin. Several hours passed. The five riders had seen no one. Conversation was at a minimum. No one wanted to get on Chris' bad side. Chris spoke to his four friends, but ignored or criticized all of Sammi's suggestions. Ezra did the most talking with Sammi; he figured she could use a friend. After half a day, listening to Chris ridicule and condescend Sammi, Ezra and Buck had had enough. They were no closer to finding Joe Barrett than they were when they left that morning. It was also taking its toll on the men.
"Ya know, Chris, we've been friends for a long time. I know you an' Vin seem to have become real close, but this is ridiculous," Buck growled, as he grabbed Chris' reins.
Normally, Buck wouldn't challenge Chris, and he'd never do something so bold as to halt his horse. Chris just glared at his old friend.
Buck continued at the amazement of all others present, "Chris Larabee, this woman needs our help. The way she went about it may have been wrong, but we ain't the ones to judge her. Now, she's had some damn good points and you ignored or criticized them. I know you care about Vin a lot, but if you don't get over your dislike for this woman, we ain't gonna git nowhere. You're ridin' around here actin' like you're the only one sufferin'. Well, we're all friends with Vin, and we don't like this situation anymore than you do. Hell, Ezra's his blood brother! You don't see him mopin' around, bitin' everyone's head off. You're not the only one who has lost people close to you, and those you've lost won’t be the last. Things happen in life an' you can't do nothin' about 'em. We've all had our troubles in the past, and we've had to deal with them alone. From what I can see, none of us have dealt with them well enough to preach to the other, but we do have each other now to help deal with the problems we got now…including Sammi. Vin's death will hurt us all, but takin' it out on her ain't gonna make it better. It ain't gonna help him at all. Vin obviously thinks enough of Sammi to have gone with her, hoping to discourage her from collectin' the bounty on him. I think, as his friends, we owe it to him to at least give her our help and support."
"Are you finished, Mr. Wilmington?" Chris growled back.
"For now," Buck responded.
"Fine; so, we'll follow what Miss Jennings suggests for while! I suppose it won't hurt. What the hell; we've wasted half the day already anyway might as well waste the other half!" Chris answered sarcastically.
Silence again befell the group as they let Sammi attempt to track down Mr. Barrett. No one else dared utter a word. Chris and Buck rode as far from each other as possible. Ezra still accompanied Sammi attempting to offer his support.
"We're close," she all of a sudden spoke softly.
"How close?" Ezra asked.
She glanced about them. At a small stream down in a gully off to the right, horses drank.
"There," she nodded her head towards the horses.
Buck threw an accusing glare over at Chris, who turned away before their eyes could meet. On the way down to the creek, Chris thought to himself: Could he be wrong? What if Buck had a point? They had been friends for some time; Buck knew him well. Why did he allow himself to get so close to Vin? Why did he care if this woman betrayed Vin? Did he hate her or Barrett? Why Sammi? She didn't shoot Vin, but it was her fault.
Chris rubbed his forehead, as the tension began to make his head ache. About that time, the five came to a stop just upstream from the horses, trying not to disturb them. They could see him now; it was Joe Barrett. He also had nine other men with him. They knew from the tracks there would be quite a few. Chris still rubbed his head; the tension was blinding, as was the now setting sun.
"We'll camp here," Sammi commented aloud.
Sammi and the four men made camp. Vin was on everyone's mind; yet, no one spoke. Ezra dared not speak to Chris for fear of a tongue-lashing considering he had been speaking to Sammi. Josiah looked at Chris while they ate supper. He could see the torment on the gunfighter's face. He took his supper and sat beside Chris.
"Thinkin' of Vin?" Josiah questioned.
"Does it matter?" Chris countered.
"I think it does."
"Do you think I was wrong?"
"Not wrong, Chris, blindsided."
"Buck an' I have been friends for a long time."
Chris sighed, "I got too close to 'im; didn't I?"
"Chris, we've all allowed ourselves to get involved with each others lives. Do you think Ezra's doin' any better than you? He's not. He an' Vin became real close since Vin's father and his cavalry troops came to Four Corners. And then there's JD, Buck and Nathan. They all look up to him. Vin's a fiercely loyal man, but I think you know that. We all admire him for that."
"You're right, Josiah."
"I think the greatest fear in all of us is if Sammi had actually asked Vin that he would've gone regardless. Nothing we could've done would've stopped him. And all this - him getting shot - it's no one's fault. It probably would've happened anyway. Chris, Vin would've gone with her; he would've been shot. There's nothing we can do now, except catch Barrett and bring him in for a trial. You know that. Deep down in your heart, you know that."
Chris bowed his head and again sighed, "I've been acting foolish haven't I? Am I mad at her, Josiah, or at Vin for being exactly what I like about him?"
Josiah smiled at Chris, "You're not foolish; you're simply a man. Pain, fear and suffering is part of life. And, personally, I think you're trying too hard to protect Vin. You're acting like a big brother or father to him. He's been on his own, Chris; he can take care of himself. There are times when things are beyond his and your control. So, yea, you probably are a little angry with Vin for allowing himself to get into certain predicaments. At the same time, you're probably angry with yourself for not being able to protect him. Trust me, Chris, Ezra's eyes are full of pain, too. I saw tears well up in his eyes when he told me about when he and Vin became blood brothers on the reservation. He said he was to pledge his loyalty to him, honor him and die for him. Here we all are, and none of us were capable of doing what Ezra had promised. Some things are beyond our control, Chris. Try to understand. And remember, this girl is close to Vin. You don't want your hatred of her getting between you an' Vin when he recovers."
Josiah could see in Chris' gaze that he was getting through the hard exterior of Chris' shell. Chris was actually allowing Josiah to comfort him. Josiah gave Chris a good pat on the back and went to get some sleep. Chris sat watching Joe Barrett and his men settle in for the night. He then laid down staring into the night pondering Josiah's words as they played over and over in his head.
~ CHAPTER 5 ~
The sun seemed to come up earlier than usual, Chris thought. Maybe it was lack of sleep; he didn't sleep well all night. Yet, everyone else had already been up and about. Josiah suddenly appeared before the man in black with a smile on his face and breakfast.
"Yea, thanks, Josiah."
"It's a new day, my friend. Another chance to make yesterday better,"
With that, Josiah handed Chris his breakfast and went about his business. Chris ate and watched the activity around him. When he finished, he rose to his feet and brought his utensils and bowl to Buck and Sammi. They were cleaning up.
"Buck, can I talk to you?" Chris asked quietly.
Buck looked at Sammi; Sammi nodded her head in approval. Buck set down the spoon in his hand and walked with his old pal.
"Buck, you're right. We've been friends for a long time. I'm sorry about the way I've been acting."
"Hey, Chris, it's OK; we've all been through a lot the past several days."
Chris nodded in agreement with Buck, "Thanks…friend."
Buck went back to Sammi as Chris went over to Josiah and Ezra. They were readying the horses.
Fifteen minutes later the five contemplated how they might take twice their number. It was decided to send Ezra to con a friendly card game.
"Ezra," Chris called out, "be careful."
Ezra smiled his trademark grin and spurred his horse. Ezra rode down to the creek and greeted the men as his horse drank.
Joe Barrett drew his gun, "What d'ya want, mister?"
"Well, I detected this here body of water and decided to discontinue my journey briefly to water my horse."
Barrett continued with his men as Ezra filled his canteens and let his horse drink. He washed his face and hands, then joined Barrett and his men.
"Might I interest you gentlemen in a friendly game of cards?" Ezra inquired.
The men looked at one another then at Barrett. He nodded an OK to them.
"Sure," one of the men spoke up.
Several of the men joined Ezra. Those that didn't stood around and watched. They played several hands. Ezra allowed a few of the men to win a hand; although, he won his fair share.
"Fancy man like yourself seems to me you just might be a gamblin' man, mister?" Joe Barrett observed.
"Why, yes, sir, I am; however, I shall refrain from appropriating your currency and valuables." Ezra agreed.
The men continued to contemplate their cards. No one paid much attention to the lady bounty hunter and her three companions. Even Joe Barrett became engrossed in the game. Each of his men now took turns at being involved in the game and being merely an observer. Chris, buck and Josiah positioned themselves within the Barrett camp undetected. Sammi walked with her horse into the camp; Ezra glanced up at her. No one noticed his glance; he was ready. Joe Barrett finally noticed Sammi and drew his gun.
"Well, well, well, Miss Jennings, what a pleasant surprise."
"Mr. Barrett," Sammi greeted.
"So, tell me; how's the cowboy?"
"None of yer business!" she snapped.
"Then, to what do we owe this visit, ma'am?" Barrett asked.
"I've come to bring you to justice, Mr. Barrett."
"Really? Did you hear that, boys? She's come to bring me to justice. How daring for such a young woman…or foolish."
"Come along peaceful, then," Sammi insisted.
Joe Barrett and his men continued to laugh as they found the situation amusing.
"I do not wish to intercede, but should you not be distressed over this predicament?" Ezra inquired.
"No, sir, she is one woman. I say we do with her as we wish and then kill her as we did her friend two days ago!" Joe Barrett exclaimed.
Ezra backed away just enough to see all ten men at the same time. Chris, Buck and Josiah emerged from hiding.
"Mr. Barrett, tell your men to drop their weapons and you do the same," Chris ordered.
"We are ten men plus this gambler; you are three plus this woman," Barrett said pointing towards Buck, Josiah and Sammi.
"I would not be so sure, Mr. Barrett," Ezra snidely remarked, gun drawn and grinning widely allowing his gold tooth to glisten in the brilliance of the sun.
"We've been conned," one of the other men hollered.
"There are still more of us than you," Barrett countered.
A man attempted to draw his gun. With a flash of iron, Chris drew his gun and fired before the man could manipulate his weapon. Chris shot the gun from the man's hand; the bullet penetrating his hand.
"Now, I said to have your men drop their guns," Chris repeated.
"Drop your weapons, boys," Barrett told his men.
"Ezra, you mind gathering them guns?" Chris questioned.
Ezra gathered the guns. Buck and Josiah tied the ten men as Chris and Sammi held the men at gunpoint. Each man was placed on his horse and tied on. The reins were tied together and led by Ezra, Buck and Josiah. Chris followed behind to make to make sure no one got any ideas.
"There's a town about one mile north of here," Sammi informed the group. "They are wanted there, too."
They guided the horses to face North and headed for the town. When they arrived, the sheriff greeted them.
"Sheriff, this here's Joe Barrett; he's wanted for murder," Chris informed.
The sheriff looked through his wanted posters and found one for each of the men.
"Who gets the bounty?" the sheriff asked.
Buck, Ezra and Josiah looked at Chris; he knew what the look meant.
"Miss Jennings, sir," Chris told the sheriff pointing to Sammi.
"I'm sorry, boys, but one of y'all are gonna have to take responsibility. We can’t give a bounty to a female," the sheriff exclaimed.
Chris glanced at Sammi; she cast her eyes down upon the floor and walked out.
"I'll take credit then," he informed.
The sheriff sent one of his deputies to the bank to retrieve the money. When the deputy returned, they issued the money to Chris.
"We're expecting some Texas Rangers tomorrow; I suppose they, too, will want these men. We'll have to decide then whether to send them back with them to Palo Pinto County to be tried for the murders there," the sheriff commented openly.
Chris thanked the sheriff and walked out with Buck, Josiah and Ezra in toe. When they arrived at their horses, they saw Sammi beginning to leave. They mounted their steeds and followed her. Chris rode up along side her.
"I believe this belongs to you," he said handing her the sack of bounty money.
"You're giving it to me?"
"Seems that's what I hear Vin would've done."
"Thank you, Mr. Larabee," Sammi said, elated.
~ CHAPTER 6 ~
The five riders continued riding until they arrived back at the camp Nathan and JD were tending to. JD was at the stream collecting water.
"JD!" Buck greeted enthusiastically.
Buck leaped from his horse and began teasing JD about collecting the water. Nathan walked slowly down to meet the group. Chris felt dread as he approached.
"Nathan, how is he?"
At that moment, a weak slightly bent over Vin appeared up on the hill. Everyone's attention turned to Vin.
"He's getting' better," Nathan answered.
Chris began to walk briskly up the hill towards Vin.
"You gave us quite a scare," Chris greeted his friend. "Don't you ever do that again!" he warned.
"Nice to see you, too, Chris," Vin replied.
"Vin!" Sammi exclaimed.
"Samantha," Vin smiled, "Nathan and JD told me about Mr. Killjoy and Mr. Barrett. Did y'all git Barrett?"
"Yea, yer friends helped." Sammi answered.
"Why didn’t you ask?" Vin asked Sammi.
"I was afraid you'd be mad that I still owned the land and didn't sell it like you told me to."
"I'd never turn you down, Samantha," Vin reassured her as he leaned forward and gently pressed his lips against hers.
She wrapped her arms around him, pressing her body firmly against him to continue the kiss.
When their lips separated, Vin asked her, "You still go by Sammi?"
"Vin, I know you don't like it, but I don't mind it."
"Sounds like a man's name. I prefer Samantha," Vin moaned.
With that, Sammi again pressed her slender body against him and kissed him. He obliged her completely. The passionate kisses were exchanged as Sammi kissed first his lips and worked her way down to his throat. Her soft hands could feel his body tighten as she gently rubbed his bare flesh. He melted beneath her kisses and touch. The fabric of his and her pants was all that separated their unity. As she pressed tighter still against him, she could feel he was finally ready to be with her. The heat of their passion escaped only through their kisses. Her breasts throbbed at each ripple of his muscles as he attempted to control his urges. With his right hand, he playfully fingered her long blonde tresses leading first down the side of her neck then down to her bosom. The feeling between their heated bodies was mutual. Vin no longer felt ashamed to feel the feminine sexuality of his long dead friend's fiancée. And Sammi longed for the day she would succumb to Vin's manliness.
"I don't mean to douse the fire here, but I don't think Vin's quite ready for any heavy breathing just yet," Nathan interrupted the pair.
"Good timing, Nathan," Vin's labored breathing had nothing to do with the bullet wound.
The couple separated after Nathan's interruption, and preparations were made to leave for Four Corners the next day.
"You goin' back to Palo Pinto?" Vin asked Sammi.
"Do you want me to?"
"No," Vin shyly answered.
"You want me to stay?" Sammi asked as she lifted his head to look her in the eye.
"Maybe I can contact someone back in Palo Pinto to sell the land, except, that is, to Mr. Killjoy, of course," Sammi pondered as she snuggled closer to Vin.
Vin pulled her closer to him and held her as close as he could. She had always been a pleasure to have around; although, his friend had one her heart before he had. Having her in Four Corners would be more than a pleasure, Vin thought to himself. The couple, along with the other men, settled in for the night.
The sun's rising brought the usual camp clearing. Everyone did his or her part. Ezra and Chris helped Vin mount his horse. Sammi stayed close to help if she were needed.
The seven men and one lady bounty hunter rode back to Four Corners.
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