They had exhausted him, plain and simple. He couldn't recall ever being this tired. When they had both draped themselves across him in the bed, he thanked God. He couldn't have moved his hand in front of his face even if his life depended on it. Forget his mare's leg. He didn't have the strength to even pick it up. He couldn't even manage to roll over. All someone had to do was push his face into the pillow, and he was a goner. He couldn't even struggle to raise his head if he wanted to, which he didn't. He was content to stay where he was with the twins on top. The others would have to do the protecting for a while without him.
Buck was right. Twins could sap your strength quicker than licking butter off a knife. He just couldn't keep his eyes open a second longer. In the background he could hear them laughing at him. If their talking woke the twins up and got them started again, he'd kill them. He had never done many of the things the two had just finished putting him through. What had started out as fun had ended in a grueling battle against exhaustion. Of course he'd have to wait to kill his friends until sleep had restored his energy. He just couldn't move right now. If he could, he'd wipe that smirk right off Ezra's face. As for Chris, he hadn't stopped laughing since the twins had shown their preference for him. Well, once he got his strength back, they had all better watch their backs. That thought comforted Vin as an exhausted sleep finally claimed him.
The three men Vin was plotting revenge against were lounging in the sitting room of the suite that had been paid for by the twin's railroad baron father. "Those twins sure wore him out. He'll probably sleep all night and half the day." Buck couldn't help but laugh at Vin.
Here was a man who could pick off the enemy with deadly accuracy or track a thief or a murderer for days without sleep, but now he was too tired to tell his friends to shut up. Buck had warned him. The Terrell Twins had earned their reputation as man-eaters, but Vin had taken one look at those two identical blue eyed blondes, and he was a goner. Alison and Alicia Terrell hadn't taken long to establish their dominance over the tracker. It had only taken a matching pair of sly grins, and Vin Tanner was just one more notch on the "Terrible Twos'" already less than stellar reputation. Hell, even Ezra was dancing attendance on them. And yes, Buck had to admit he was a goner as well. Chris was the only one who hadn't fallen head over heels for those pretty faces framed by all that long, blonde curly hair.
"They do seem to have tremendous amounts of energy. However, in our friend's defense, he did sacrifice himself in order to give us a respite. Lord only knows what they did to him to exhaust him so much, but rest assured, he will expect payment in kind. We will need him alert tomorrow if we plan to make our destination in time. Vin does know the shortest route; and once there, we can return them to their doting father. Then, this hellacious trip will be over."
"I hope you're right, Ezra. If we don't get rid of that pair soon, we're all gonna be dead." Chris was serious. Those two were lethal. They had already rendered defenseless three of his most reliable men. Vin should have known better than to fall for two sets of blue eyes and pretty faces. Ezra, a con artist, should have spotted the con game those two were running a mile off; and then, there was Buck. His oldest friend should have been able to use his considerable charms to get those females to do anything he wanted, but no. He was just as bad as Ezra and Vin. The Terrell Twins had worked a number on all three of them, and what was worse, Chris was finding it increasingly hard to keep his distance from those two enchantresses. Now Chris knew why the people he had collected the twins from referred to them as the "Terrible Twos". They had earned their reputation. If Judge Travis had told him exactly for whom they would be supplying safe escort, Chris would have flatly refused. He didn't care how powerful the railroad baron was. In the three days they had had the twins in their custody, it had been one disaster after another. It would be funny if things weren't so dangerous now.
Normally, Chris never would have agreed to escort two five year-old little girls anywhere, any place, any time. However, once told that they would be in effect defenseless since the Pinkerton escort had been decreased in number by the would-be kidnappers, the seven men in Four Corners could not refuse to help the judge. A gang of five men had tried to forcibly take the twins from their nanny and the 3 Pinkerton bodyguards. Two of the men were dead, and the other one plus the nanny had been seriously wounded protecting the little girls on their trip to their new home in San Francisco. Only the loyal men working on the train had stopped the kidnapping. The gang was still out there, but Chris knew that if they got their hands on the little girls, they would probably kill them just to shut them up. It was imperative they make it to their destination without any harm to the twins. However, Chris had never seen children more prone to trouble than the twins. He had serious doubts if any of the four men traveling with the twins would make it back alive and safe.
Before they had left Four Corners, Judge Travis had given Chris Larabee several thousand dollars. The twins were to have the best of everything. If they had to stay in a town, they should book a suite, so the twins would not be left alone for a minute. Their safety after the botched kidnapping attempt was paramount. The plan had been hastily concocted, but so far it had proven effective for no sign had been seen of the kidnappers. The four men felt that the kidnappers had swallowed the bait and were chasing the train that JD, Nathan, and Josiah had boarded as the new bodyguards hired by the judge. They were to escort the wounded nanny and Pinkerton agent along with the sequestered twins to San Francisco and their frantic parents, at least that was the plan that had been leaked to the public. While the three men had stayed with the train, Chris had taken Vin, Ezra, and Buck with him and the twins to travel as fast as they could by horse through the many towns and wilderness that had to be crossed. It had taken the four of them only a day and a half to reach the twins, but their time now was slow because you just couldn't travel light and fast with two little girls.
Chris was supposed to be the twin's father and Vin their uncle, so he had checked into the hotel as Christopher Sheridan. Ezra had suggested the name. He was traveling under one of his former pseudonyms Ezra St. John and was supposed to be Chris's business partner. Buck was the bodyguard. Ezra had spread the story in the towns they had traveled through in the last three days that Chris and Vin had discovered a small but lucrative gold mine in California and were returning with Chris's daughters from back East where they had been living with his late wife's family. Ezra was a distant relative who had helped his cousins finance their quest for gold. Ezra had managed to paint a rather dangerous reputation for all the men in order to convince many of the people in the towns they traveled through to leave them alone. His information that they had money to spend but weren't railroad baron rich went far in keeping most peoples minds on where they spent their money instead of setting them up as pigeons to be plucked. However good the charade that Ezra had concocted, it wasn't fool proof. He had forgotten to factor the twins into the odds for a successful plan. They all had. Chris never remembered Adam getting into this much trouble, even with Buck as his willing accomplice! It was both a pain and a pleasure to be around the twins. They brought back memories of times Chris had thought too painful to remember, but he had found that the good memories were coming more often than that last horrific time he had seen his wife and son. The twins, Chris just shook his head and smiled.
In the last three days, one disaster after another had plagued the men. Plain and simple, the twins had done their best to get the four men killed. It wasn't that they intentionally sought trouble; it wasn't as if the twins were mean and spoiled little brats. It was more like they were magnets for trouble. They were curious as any five year-old would be, and they had that uncanny twin ability to communicate with one another without even talking. It had taken one look at the softhearted tracker for the girls to peg him as their champion. It was Vin they followed everywhere. It was almost as if his calm, laid back attitude was something the girls were drawn to, that plus his lazy grin and soft laugh just naturally made the little girls giggle and feel safe.
If Vin Tanner was a safe haven for the girls, Ezra Standish was the entertainment. His card tricks and theatrical voice would mesmerize them for long periods of time giving the other three men a breather. Buck, well the twins just naturally liked to torture Buck. For some reason, unlike the other three, Buck couldn't tell the twins apart. He couldn't seem to remember who had the tinier nose dusted by freckles and who had the wider set of eyes. The two had the most fun changing their seats and torturing Buck by telling him the other one's name. Just when Buck seemed to know who was who, they did something to confuse the hell out of the womanizer.
So far Chris had been the lone hold out to the charms of the twins. Maybe his need to protect these two was a way to prove to himself that he wasn't guilty of Sarah and Adam's deaths. Either way, Chris did exert the only authority over the girls. If the other three told them to do something, the twins would just giggle and totter off into mischief. However, if Chris told them to do something, it garnered an immediate and obedient response. Maybe that was why Chris was slowly succumbing to the charms of these two precocious bundles of endless energy. They were certainly affectionate and good hearted little girls. It was just that their parents had always created a safe world where they could totter around and no mischief would befall them. Now it was different. They weren't in a nice protected estate with servants and even bodyguards silently and unobtrusively securing their safety. They were out in the cold, cruel world where anyone could prey upon their innocence. They had no idea that they weren't safe here, and so they continued to go their merry ways without worrying about their own safety.
The first day, they followed Vin into the saloon where he was trying to find out some information about any strangers beside themselves in the town. They had blithely left Buck, silently followed Vin, walked up to a nearby table, proceeded to pick up a man's lit cigar, and tried a puff each. Their choking coughs nearly caused both Buck and Vin to have chest pains. Chris had spent the next hour trying to convince the two men that they hadn't caused any permanent damage. Next, back at the hotel, one had discovered Ezra's shiny flask unattended and open on the table. Fortunately, Vin caught them before they drank more than a swallow each. Vin had not only poured it out, but he spent the next hour trying to convince the little girls that they couldn't follow him everywhere he went, leave Buck without asking permission, or drink anything they found on the table. They had nodded, smiled, and belched brandy in his face. Buck had thrown his head back and laughed until Ezra, who was still waiting for Chris to shoot him over the unattended flask, gave him a quelling frown. Chris had almost smiled, but Ezra and Vin were not seeing the humor in the situation at the moment. So, Buck had whisked the little girls off to see the circus that was in town. Chris followed at a discreet distance to keep an eye out for any suspicious strangers.
It was for that reason alone that he couldn't prevent the next disaster. Buck, being Buck, couldn't tell the little darlings no and proceeded to stuff the little girls with every type of greasy and sweet circus food known to man and a few unknown. By the time Chris had noticed the rather greenish tinge and the telltale signs of upset tummies, the damage had been done. So angry that Buck had in effect stuffed the two girls until they were ready to explode, Chris had handed them to Buck and motioned the way back to the hotel. He wanted them in the room and safe before the girls started wailing in distress and where he could shoot Buck without witnesses.
Unfortunately, Ezra opened the door to allow Buck to enter just as the twins vomited the contents of their stomachs. Since Buck had been carrying one under each arm, they managed to project the mess all over the front of Ezra's beautiful purple jacket. Chris almost lost it when he saw the look of horror that passed over Ezra's face. Vin, who had come from the other room in time to see the projectile vomiting, backed as far away from the unholy mess as he could and still remain in the suite. Chris handed the now empty twins to the tracker to clean, and he and Buck began to clean up the other mess. An hour later saw Ezra's suit in the hands of the hotel staff for cleaning and the two clean and towel-wrapped terrors chattering happily on Buck's lap.
Vin found the abused gambler on the balcony of the master bedroom. "You realize, of course, that if you say anything, mention this unfortunate mishap to anyone, I shall be forced to kill you. Their father doesn't have enough money to pay me to suffer three more days in the company of those hellions!"
Vin nodded his understanding, "You know, they were real sorry they messed up your purty coat."
"Flattery will not prevent me from avenging myself upon those two, those two. . . . "
A low and uncharacteristic giggle erupted from the tracker, "But, but you should have seen Chris's face when they threw-up all over you. His eyes nearly rolled back in his head. That, that vein was throbbin', you know, that one on his head that throbs when he's really pissed? And you. Your eyes were so wide. . . . "
Ezra began to respond to the sight of Vin Tanner overcome with a case of the giggles, "Oh? And what about you this morning? First you let them smoke and then they belched in your face." The giddiness was contagious, "The expression on your face," Ezra succumbed. Both men slid down the wall and sat down guffawing until they saw a rather disgruntled frown directed at them. They looked at Chris and then at each other.
They proceeded to roll on the floor clutching their stomachs as Chris Larabee slammed back into the bedroom. "Buck get those babies dressed for bed."
"Do it, Buck!"
Ezra and Vin had finally walked back into the room just as Buck was putting the girls in the big bed. "Now Alicia, darlin', you just lie down for Uncle Buck."
"That's Alison, Buck. Can't you tell them apart, yet?"
"Well, I guess not. You gonna stand there or help?"
"I got first watch, you put 'em to bed."
"We want a story. Please?" They directed two sets of pleading blue eyes right at Ezra, and he fell hard right at their feet, his anger dissipated by two sets of matching blue orbs.
"Why ladies, I would be delighted to tell you wondrous tales of beautiful princesses and amazing feats of valor!" They were fascinated with Ezra's speech patterns, and another disaster began to brew. Ezra proceeded to weave a tale that fascinated even Buck into listening until the twins had both drifted off. Panic ensued the next morning when Ezra checked to find the bed empty and the twins gone. He woke Buck, and they made their way into the main sitting room to see if Chris had seen where the twins had gone. He was sitting on a chair next to the door. Vin was asleep on the couch with a blanket thrown over him. There was something odd about the way he looked.
"Chris, they're gone!"
"Calm down, Buck."
"Calm down? Didn't you hear him? Where are they?"
Without opening his eyes, Vin pulled back the blanket to reveal two bodies lying right on top of his chest.
Chris smiled at the disheveled and hastily dressed men standing before him. "I came in to take over for Vin, and they were both on his lap sound asleep. Said they came in an hour after we all turned in and climbed right up on his lap and went back to sleep." Buck and Ezra exchanged a meaningful look and both sat down on the other chairs.
"So what do we do now that I have been robbed of several years of my life?" Ezra shook his head ruefully.
"I'm hungry." Alison was awake and sitting up. She slid down from Vin's chest until her legs were dangling off the side of the couch and she was leaning against the tracker. He held his arm around her to prevent a slide onto the cold, wooden floor.
"Me, too." Alicia just stood up and planted one foot right in the middle of Vin's stomach on her way to sit by her twin. The whoosh coming out of Vin went unnoticed by the twins, but not the three men. Ezra looked down at his sleeve to hide his grin. Chris stood and grabbed the wandering Alicia before she decided she liked the other side of Vin better. Buck just grinned and reached for Alison who was holding her arms out to Buck.
"I guess we them take to breakfast, Ezra. Vin, Chris, let's get movin'. The darlins are hungry." With that, Buck and the others proceeded to get the girls ready to go to the hotel dining room. It was too early to be very crowded.
"Today has to be an improvement over yesterday, don't you think?" Vin nodded his agreement to the gambler as they closed the door on their way out. They were blissfully ignorant of the havoc that awaited them.
At breakfast, both girls began speaking with Southern accents, repeating every word that came from Ezra's mouth. When the waitress had kindly corrected their pronunciation of scrambled "eggzes", Alison promptly turned to Alicia and said, "You really need to work on your exocution skills, damnit."
Dead silence followed as the waitress began to look askance at Ezra. "Execution skills?" was her response.
"I believe she meant elocution. Children, you know how they are. They pick up the strangest expressions. I have no idea where they heard that inappropriate word."
"Uncle Buck said it to Uncle Vin. Damnit to hell, Vin! That's what he said, right Alison?" Alicia was not about to be left out of the fun. Vin and Buck were still too astonished to speak and for once, Ezra looked disconcerted.
"You shouldn't say. . . ." was the collective response from all three when Chris finally stepped in.
"That's enough, girls. You aren't to use the words 'damnit' or 'hell' again. Do you understand?" He said it calmly, without the excited embarrassment that had infected the other three.
"Yes, sir." Another attention getting moment survived, but the day had just started. It had gone rapidly downhill as the active twins tried to ride some drunk's horse, managed to break a store window by throwing a ball from inside to Buck on the outside, and told the busybody shop owner that some men had tried to steal them from their daddy. Then they told the nosy owner that Chris wasn't really their daddy. Chris had had to show the town sheriff the letter from Judge Travis and John Terrell stating that the girls were in his custody. They had left that town in the early evening agreeing that staying there another day was not a good idea. They didn't want the shop owner to spread the truth, and they arrived in next town in the early hours of the morning. They woke up the clerk at the desk in the hotel and took the one of two suites in the front the hotel offered. All four men were tired, but the twins had slept all night long in one of their arms. Since they preferred Vin and Ezra, neither man had gotten much sleep.
The "Terrible Twos" had remained asleep until mid morning. They awoke refreshed and revitalized and proceeded to get into one mishap after another until an uncharacteristically no calmness anywhere to be found-Vin had finally taken them into a field outside of town and let them run themselves ragged playing games that only the little girls knew the rules for. It had worked to give the other three men some respite, but it had completely worn the tracker out. He had brought them back exhausted. They had stayed awake long enough to eat and bathe and then had crawled under the covers of the bed Vin had sprawled upon and had cuddled up to their playmate. They had fallen asleep instantly, only to be followed by Vin. He hadn't even eaten. He had just come back with the girls, dropped the grime covered children on Ezra and Buck and had fallen across the bed. He had mumbled to Chris on the way in that he would kill the first person to wake him up; it had better be fire and brimstone at the door before he would get up and do anything else. Chris had followed him in long enough to make sure he got his boots and gun off and then left him sprawled face down on the bed. He saw something strange and leaned over to take a look. There were three little wild flowers in Vin's hair, right next to his left ear. Chris had smiled and walked away, leaving the tracker in an exhausted heap on the bed.
"Can we have cake, please?" Alison pealed one of Vin's eyelids back before Ezra could stop her. "Uncle Vin's awake now, Uncle Ezra."
"Oh, me, too. Choclit with icin'," Alicia bounced on the bed next to the wide-awake and very disgruntled tracker.
Oblivious to his scowls, the twins proceeded to bounce up and down on the bed chanting, "We want cake! We want cake!"
"Now, darlin's, quick shakin' up your Uncle Vin. You're makin' him sea sick." Buck decided Ezra needed his expertise with the female sex.
"What's sea sick?"
"Will you die from it?"
"You die from it! You die from it! You die from it!" The twins punctuated each chant with a bounce.
"Yes, Uncle Buck, do pray explain to these lovely young ladies what sea sickness is." Ezra folded his arms across his chest and waited for Buck to talk himself out of this one.
Chris strode into the room and almost ran into a fast exiting Tanner. "Alison, Alicia, hush. And stop that bouncing." All activity ceased.
"Vin, where are you goin'?" Vin didn't bother to answer Buck as he walked into the other room. The twins hopped off the bed to follow Vin. He always had adventures wherever they had been, and they were wide-awake and ready for a new one. The cake was forgotten.
"Wait for us, Uncle Vin." Alison moved as fast as her little legs would allow, walking between Buck's legs and right into Ezra.
"Wait for us, please? Uncle Vinnnnnnn?" Alicia threw back her head and sobbed his name.
"Now Vin. . . ."
"I ain't got time, Buck. You watch em."
It dawned on the three men that Vin had been sleeping for 10 hours and not only had no time to spare, but he also didn't want an audience.
Chris grabbed both girls and swung them over to Ezra as Vin exited the suite for the hotel's facilities located on that floor. Then they burst out laughing. Ezra's hands worked magic with the cards as the girls quickly forgot Vin's abrupt departure in order to concentrate on the adept gambler. Day four had just begun. Each man steeled himself for another day of hell. They were getting used to having the twins' adventures nearly kill them, and true to form, the twins did not disappoint them.
It was getting close to noon, and Vin and Ezra exchanged worried glances. So far, nothing had gone wrong. They were just killing time waiting for the telegram from the twins' father. Every other day Chris had sent a wire to John Terrell about an impending business deal. At least that is what the telegraph operator in each town was supposed to think. Terrell would indicate that a meeting could take place as soon as Terrell and Chris and his partners made it to San Francisco. Terrell would pointedly say in each telegram that as soon as his daughters arrived on the train, he would join his pregnant wife in San Francisco. It was just extra cover for the group. As soon as they received confirmation from Terrell that the train was still the accepted decoy, the others would head for the next town with the twins. Ezra and Vin both felt suspicious that things were going too well, but they chalked that up to their time spent with the unpredictable twins. They didn't say anything to one another about their apprehension; they didn't want to jinx the tranquillity they were enjoying. It was the first day since they had met the twins that disaster hadn't followed disaster.
They were sitting outside the telegraph office where they were able to keep an eye on both the hotel where Buck had taken the twins to clean them up for lunch and wait for news from Chris.
"Well, I don't see no white flag comin' from out the window."
Ezra turned a matching grin to Vin. "Neither do we hear a large mustached gentleman bellowing for assistance."
"Yeah, Buck's real good at bellowin', ain't he? You think he'll ever be able to tell them apart?"
Vin looked at Ezra as they both burst into laughter. It quickly died as Ezra pointed to the balcony.
"Boys, we got trouble." Chris barely got that statement out as Ezra and then Vin shoved past him towards the hotel.
Vin turned and pulled Chris by the arm pointing at the balcony, "That we do!"
There they were, both of them. Alison and Alicia had gotten away from Buck just long enough to crawl up on the railing of the balcony. In the time it took for Vin to look at Ezra, they had each crawled up and were perched precariously on opposite ends of the balcony three stories above the sidewalk. It was a perilous drop for a man, certain death for two little girls. And there was Buck caught in the middle not knowing who to grab first, and scared any movement on his part might topple the twins off the railing on which they were blithely standing. Ezra shoved the forming crowd out of his way and positioned himself under Alison. Vin took his position underneath Alicia. Chris took the steps three at a time to get to the room before Ezra and Vin had to play catch with 30-pound bodies. His heart was in his mouth as he pounded up the stairs. It seemed like hours until he reached the door. Fortunately, it wasn't locked, not that a locked door would have stopped Chris at this point. He rushed into the bedroom and almost collided with Buck who was still caught between the two girls.
"Now darlin's, ya'll stay right where ya'll are." His voice was surprisingly calm. He acknowledged Chris's presence as he waved him in the opposite direct he was moving in, "Alicia,..."
"I'm Alison, Uncle Buck." She giggled as she leaned over. "Look at Uncle Ezra. He looks so tiny down there."
"So does Uncle Vin," replied the now leaning Alicia.
Chris made his way over to Alicia like everything was normal, "Alicia, honey, I want to see how tiny Uncle Vin looks. You stay right where you are, and I'll be right there."
"'Kay." Alicia wobbled just a little bit forward, and Vin ignored the gasping crowd as he watched the little girl intently.
"Yeah, Alison, I want to see Uncle Ezra look tiny, too. Can I come over and look?" Buck was almost there.
Ezra and Vin both heaved a sigh of relief as Chris and Buck grabbed the little girls off the balcony.
"Well, that was stupid. Why I'd whup em' if they were mine." This came from a rather thin and pinched looking man standing in the doorway.
"No one asked you," was Vin's growled response. The man took a step back from the angry tracker.
"Show's over ladies and gentlemen. Please continue with your business," was Ezra's response to the crowd as he brushed by the intimidated man. His quelling frown silenced anything the large woman next to him was about to say.
Vin and Ezra flew up the stairs and didn't stop until they were in the suite. Ezra locked the doors on any would-be do-gooders. Like Vin, he was in no mood to listen to someone's catty advice. He knew that Buck wasn't at fault here. Those two girls could split and run in opposite directions quicker than lightning, and none of them had even thought the balcony posed a threat. None of them realized that the railing was just beckoning the girls to come and check it out, or Vin or Ezra would have accompanied Buck into the hotel. Hindsight was a wonderful thing. They wouldn't make that mistake again.
The two men stopped at the sight before them. Chris Larabee had both girls sitting on the couch facing him as he knelt in front of them at eye level. A thunderous Buck stood behind him, his arms folded over his chest. Chris had obviously already scolded the girls and was now trying to make them promise in no uncertain terms that they would never, ever climb onto any railing on any balcony ever again. They were solemnly staring at him trying to find a way out of the promise before they even made it. Having no idea why Uncle Chris and Uncle Buck were so angry, they were feeling abused. They spotted Vin and Ezra and tried to go to them. Their little eyes were large with tears, something they knew worked on the tracker and the gambler every time. Heroes to the end, Vin and Ezra turned tail and made their way back to the door.
"We will procure a table for lunch.," Ezra said as he and Vin cleared out until the punishment phase was over.
Buck's muttered, "Cowards," did little to slow them down. If anyone could make the twins see the errors of their ways, it was Chris Larabee. If not wanting to witness the scene made them cowards, they would drink to it later when they were all back in Four Corners. That is if they lived to see Four Corners again.
Ezra and Vin decided to send the luncheon up to the room for the other four when Vin spotted two rather rough individuals ride into town. They matched the descriptions of two of the five men who had tried to kidnap the twins. They made arrangements, and then Ezra headed to the saloon first in order to check them out. Vin waited a few minutes to let Ezra get set up at a table, and then he walked into the saloon and up to the bar.
"One gut warmer." He'd chosen to stand at the darker corner just within hearing distance, but where he could keep an eye on Ezra, the door, and the two cowboys. Ezra had already attracted one to his table with his shuffling of cards. Vin nursed his drink and listened to the barkeep and the second man.
"I haven't seen you 'round these parts before."
"First time here. You get a lot of strangers in this town?"
"Sure do, what with the railroad and all. People come and go all the time. Plan on stayin' long?"
"Nah, just passin' through. Probably won't stay long, no more than a day at the most. That gambler, been here long?"
"That one?" The barkeep stole a glance at Vin, and then answered the man at the bar, "Been here a while. Why?"
"Ah, he just looked like a feller I heard tell of. Friend of mine said there was a shady gambler, fancy dressed feller, traveling with some friends an' to watch out for him."
Vin looked over at the man from under the brim of his hat. How had they known that one of the men with the twins was a gambler? The hair on the back of Vin's neck stood on end. He glanced over at Ezra and saw that Ezra had heard the same thing. As Ezra continued to shuffle the deck and talk to the other man, he continued being his usual erudite self, which meant Ezra was confusing the hell out of the other man. Vin would have smiled if he didn't think it would alert the men that he was listening to every word. He waited for the barkeep's answer.
"Well, it ain't him. He's been running a square game nigh on two weeks now."
"That's good to know. Guess I'll go enjoy the game then. You see anyone like that other feller?"
"Yeah, day before yesterday. Him and a couple friends came in and tried to clean up, but they got run outta town fast. Sheriff here don't like crooked gamblers. Don't like trouble much at all. Hell, he shoots first and asks questions later. Got to in a town like this."
"Don't want any trouble myself." With that, the man walked over and joined the card game.
Vin couldn't believe the barkeep had lied for them. He finished his drink. The barkeep brought him another one. When Vin raised an eyebrow, he started to wipe up the bar in front of him. His back was to the other men, and he spoke softly, only to Vin.
"Heard there were some purty bad fellas tried to kidnap some little girls off a train coupla weeks back. Heard tell they shot up the train purty bad, killed some folk. Don't hold with hurtin' children. Would hate to see anything happen to those two you got. Nieces, huh?" He winked at Vin.
Vin returned his smile and put a five-dollar gold piece on the bar. The barkeep started to wave it away, but Vin shoved it toward him and smiled. "You earned it, Mister." He tipped his hat and turned to face Ezra as the bartender walked off. Ezra understood.
"Well gentlemen, would you care to partake in a game of chance?"
"Sure thing, Mister. We can play a game or two."
"Wonderful." Ezra smoothly led the men into conversation as he allowed the man who'd been speaking to the barkeep to cut the deck. Vin brushed past him on the way to the hotel to alert Chris and Buck. Ezra could be trusted to keep the men busy for at least an hour while the others decided what to do. They didn't look too smart to Vin, so he didn't think Ezra would have much trouble. Ezra, too, had overheard the conversation between the man and the barkeep.
Vin didn't hurry until he got to the staircase in the hotel. Once at the door, he tapped quickly three times, whistled once, and then entered. Chris was waiting his gun aimed at the door. He quickly holstered it as Buck brought the twins back to the table and the lunch they had so abruptly left. Vin knew then that it wasn't the twins on the railing that Chris had been speaking about when he had said they had trouble. The two men in the saloon proved that trouble had found them.
"Where's Ezra?" Chris asked
"Connin' information outta two guys in the saloon. Both matched descriptions of two of the five." Vin didn't need to say more and didn't want to with the twins listening to every word. One was trying to get out of the chair Buck had placed her in to come over to him. He crossed the room quickly, put Alicia back at the table, and handed her a fork, "Eat your lunch." For once, the twin obeyed; she had Vin right where she wanted him anyway.
"You been drinkin'," commented Alicia. She hadn't forgotten the smell of alcohol from her first encounter.
"Ick," replied Alison.
"Eat," countered Vin. Chris smiled at the exchange. Vin was getting very good at handling the twins, course he did better when he just corrected them and didn't think about it.
"Buck, why don't you go visit the sheriff?" Chris motioned Buck to the door. "I talked to him early this morning about all of this. Judge Travis said he could be trusted and suggested him as good back-up."
"He oughta have the descriptions by now," Vin added.
Buck got his hat and headed for the door. "I'll stop in the saloon on the way back and get Ezra. You gonna tell Vin now an' I'll tell Ezra?"
"Tell me what?"
"When the girls are taking a nap I will." Chris indicated they would discuss it all when they didn't have two pairs of ears listening in. "I'll fill Vin in on what I can, and you tell Ezra. Try to get back here within an hour. I want to leave at nightfall. We're turning south to Four Corners."
Vin raised startled blue eyes from the twins to Chris then Buck. He knew things had gone sour, but he hadn't realized how bad they actually were until he heard they were going to Four Corners. Buck nodded at him and then exited to get the sheriff and help remove the two men in the saloon.
"You girls finished eating?" The twins looked up at Chris and grinned. They had chocolate cake all over their faces. Alicia held her arms out to Vin to be picked up, so did Alison.
"Ah no, y'all got me filthy the other day. I ain't fallin' for that agin." He smiled to soften the blow, and the twins threw back their heads and giggled.
Five was way too young to be frightened by things a child couldn't possibly understand. Vin knew that from personal experience. His whole world had crumbled when his ma had died when he was five. There was no way he was going to let the twins experience any of the fear he had felt when he was their age. If he had to track each one of those kidnappers and kill them one by one, they were never, ever gonna get their hands on his twins and hurt them.
Chris saw the look that had passed over Vin's face and guessed what he was thinking. He knew Vin had lost his mother at five, and he knew that Vin had fallen in love with those two little girls. So had Ezra. So had Buck. And so had Chris. To use the twins' favorite expression, 'Damn it to hell if anyone was going to hurt their girls!' Chris knew what Vin was thinking all right, and he knew that Vin and Ezra weren't going to like what he and Buck had learned today from that one simple telegram. Their best bet was to get the twins to Four Corners and join up with the others as fast as they could. Their attempts to trick the kidnappers had been betrayed by a person close to Terrell, and now they had two kidnappers in town looking for them. If they had traveled from the decoyed train as fast as they could, then the other gang members had to be somewhere to the west of the town, right in their planned direction.
Chris figured that the rest of the kidnappers, and there were at least fifteen more known to be helping by now for vultures seemed to join together, were waiting for them about 10 miles outside of town. At least that is where Chris would pick to do it. Close enough to make the hunted think they were still safe, but far enough away for the kidnapping to be carried out and the culprits long gone before the sheriff could arrive with help. The sound of the trains alone would muffle the sound of gunfire. The only chance lay in leaving at nightfall when the girls would be asleep, and they could travel as fast as they could to Four Corners. They should get there by dawn or early morning the next day. Then the kidnappers would have to come to them, fight them on their territory, their terms. Chris had already replied by telegram that they would be leaving by train tomorrow morning for San Francisco, but Judge Travis knew that meant they would set out for Four Corners that evening. That had been the one plan that the Judge had insisted upon, that they would bring the twins directly to Four Corners if anything should go wrong.
Josiah had already warned Judge Travis, and the others were already on their way to Four Corners. If they were traveling behind the kidnappers and had gone directly southeast from the last train stop, Josiah, JD, and Nathan would be waiting for them in Four Corners when they arrived with the twins. Now all Chris had to do was deliver them there safe and alive. As soon as he had shared all this with Vin and the twins were napping, Chris would send Vin out to scout the area around the town and pinpoint the location of the gang. It would tire out the tracker, but Chris needed to know what the odds were before they left the safety of the town. He wanted to be in Four Corners by dawn. There were two little girls' lives at stake, and Chris wasn't going to let anything happen to them. He knew Vin would get the job done without being detected and without help, so he helped Vin clean off the messy hands and faces in front of him. The twins, for once, gave them no problem at all taking their naps. They seemed to sense that both men were extremely serious about something, and they had had the chocolate cake that had been their obsession since breakfast. They were feeling generous and indulged the two men by quickly falling asleep.
Chris quietly explained what he wanted from Vin. He had just finished when Buck and Ezra returned. Ezra's eyes told them that he not only knew what was going on, but that he and Buck were just as determined as they were that the twins would be protected from all of this, from the fear, from the anxiety, from the kidnappers. And Heaven help the greedy bastards who wanted to profit off of the twins.
"Our friend, the sheriff, now has two new inmates for his jail, Mr. Larabee."
"He had them knocked out and locked up before anyone else knew about it, Chris. I like Sheriff Johnson. Hell, even the barkeep helped." Buck had been thoroughly entertained by the swift incarceration of the two murderous kidnappers.
"Good! I'm on my way out now, Chris. What if I come across the camp?"
"Come back and tell us."
"The sheriff has offered to round a posse up and go after them if we want," added Ezra.
"No, I just want them delayed and some of their number decreased. If the sheriff and his people can slow them down that'll give us time to get the twins safely to Four Corners. We can't stop to help the sheriff get them now. Only Terrell knows who is behind this, and he doesn't want to tip him off before we can catch him. Understand? We have to get the twins to Four Corners and join up with the others. We can protect them there, and Terrell is bringing in extra men as well. We'll make our stand there. Watch your back, Vin. We leave at nightfall."
The tracker nodded and was out the door with Chris behind him. Buck and Ezra stayed with the twins in order to gather everything together. They had less than 5 hours to prepare. Things could get ugly fairly fast, and they prepared in case of any emergency. Chris returned to the hotel manager's office with Sheriff Johnson to discuss their plans. They only needed Vin's information before they left now. He had already paid the hotel; the horses were saddled and waiting. Vin had taken a different horse on his trek into the surrounding area. Chris hadn't liked the idea, but the tracker had insisted on having his own mount fresh and ready to ride. The twins' lives depended on them, and Vin wasn't going to trust them to any horse but his own. The sheriff had loaned Vin his own horse to ride out on this afternoon, and Chris trusted his judgment. He just couldn't help but feel a little apprehensive sending Vin alone, but the tracker could cover more territory faster and quieter alone.
Time was the enemy now. Night would give them cover, and the sooner the tracker returned; the sooner they could start for Four Corners. Even the twins had picked up on the tension despite Buck and Ezra's attempts to distract them. Their Vin was gone, and Chris was too busy planning to soothe their fears. They were getting antsy and tired of sitting in the hotel room, but they dared not take them outside. It was exhausting for the men to keep the twins from bursting into tears, much less entertain them. It was nearly six in the evening when Vin returned. The look on his face told Chris now was the time to leave.
Chris didn't notice the tiny figure standing behind Vin until the twins started yelling.
"Jamie! Lookie, Lisha. Ours brought us Jamie!"
"Jamie, Jamie!" The little girls both hugged the little boy who was wearing Vin's coat. It enveloped him, but he managed to return the hugs from the twins.
"We don't have enough kids to take care of, you had to find one more?" Buck grinned at the little boy, who was no more than seven and bore a strong resemblance to the Terrell twins. Chris raised an eyebrow, and Vin broke in before anyone else could make a comment.
"We gotta ride now. I backtracked. Made sure no one followed us, but they'll be here any minute to try and take the twins. We gotta warn the town and ride, now!"
"We got that covered, son." Vin saw Sheriff Johnson and tipped his hat to him. "Didn't get to mention it earlier, but I heard some nasty rumors bout you, son. Glad to know Judge Travis is right, and they ain't true." Johnson winked at Vin; then turned to Chris. "I had my deputies round up some people just in case this happened. You can't be too careful. You men take those children and head for Four Corners. We'll stop as many of them as we can and delay the rest. Go on, we got your backs covered." The sheriff motioned the already moving men out of the door.
Vin had both Alicia and Jamie, while Ezra carried Alison. "I need to send anyone word on that boy?" Johnson asked as they exited the room, Chris in front and Buck in the rear.
"You got a half hour at the most. Wire Judge Travis and John Terrell in Four Corners, and tell Terrell his brother's dead, but his nephew's alive." Vin stopped and looked the sheriff in the eye. "Make sure you tell Terrell his brother only did it cause they had his boy. I think the boy's ma is in on it. I ain't sure. Mark Terrell only got to tell me so much before he died. Gave me a letter to give to his brother, said he'd understand." With that, Vin followed Chris out.
Jamie Terrell turned his face into Vin's chest, trying not to cry any more. He was only seven, but he knew if he started crying, the twins would cry, too. And, somehow, he knew he had to be quiet and brave just like his daddy had made him promise to be before he had given him to the man who's coat he was wearing now. Vin, Jamie didn't know the rest of his name, just Vin, had promised to take care of him, and Jamie believed him now he had seen his cousins. He just kept seeing all the blood on his daddy when he had handed him to Vin.
"Be brave and quiet, Jamie. I love you son, and this man will take you to Uncle John. Trust him," were the last words Mark Terrell had uttered to his son before he'd turned his horse and headed for the cliff, the gang of kidnappers behind him.
Mark Terrell had taken his horse over the cliff, knowing that his son was safe with Vin Tanner. He had purposely led the kidnappers to think he still had his son and had taken a deadly gamble that they would survive the plunge in to the river below. The kidnappers decided Terrell and his son had both died in the river and so had ridden right past where Vin had safely hidden with the boy. They'd had no idea that Vin was there and had seen Mark Terrell make a run for freedom. It had taken two hours for Vin to be sure that the kidnappers were convinced Jamie was gone as well. That's when he'd taken the boy and ridden as fast as he could back to town.
Jamie hadn't understood a lot of what his father had said to Vin, but he knew it had to do with his momma and that man who was always around when his daddy wasn't there. Vin had asked him very little. He had just kept Jamie from seeing what happened to his father, hugged him tight, and promised him no one would hurt him again. The closer they got to town, the safer Jamie felt. He was away from those men who had taken him almost five days ago, and Vin had promised to take him to his cousins and his uncle and aunt. So far the man hadn't lied to him, and he had other men with him who the twins seemed to treat just like they had his father. They were comfortable and loved them, and that just made Jamie feel safer. Even the silent man in black had paused long enough to pat Jamie on the back and tell him it would be all right. Then he had taken him from Vin. Vin had handed Alicia to Buck and had taken the lead out of town. Jamie was already tired, and it wasn't hard to let his head droop on the shoulder of the man in black. As his eyelids began to flutter closed, he heard Alicia whine to the man with the mustache.
"Where's Ours goin'?"
"Yeah, where's Ours goin', Our Ezra?" Alison was just as possessive as Alicia. Somehow the four men had become ours instead of uncles, and the little girls wanted them in sight. They just thought they were going on another adventure, and that Vin had brought their cousin along to surprise them. Jamie was usually with them all the time any way, so it was natural that he went with them now. They had no idea that Jamie's father had been killed trying to save them and his son.
"We want Ours!" promised to become the next twin obsession until Chris intervened.
"Hush now. You're waking Jamie, and he's real tired! Vin will be back in a minute. He rode ahead to check things out." Our Chris made it sound so reasonable that the twins were satisfied. If Our Chris said Ours was coming back, he was coming back. Plus, the twins were very softhearted, and they would be real quiet for their cousin. They began to nod off in the quiet. The rhythm of the horses served to rock them to sleep. Alicia yawned in Buck's face, kissed him on the cheek, and then snuggled her head into the crook of his neck. He smiled over at Ezra as Alison did the same.
Ezra looked at Chris and Jamie and then back at Buck. He remembered a life of being dumped by his mother on different relatives until his mother had need of him for some con she was pulling. At least she never used him in a kidnapping scheme or placed him in actual danger. He knew, that in her way, Maude loved him as much as only Maude could. It wasn't until fate had led him to Four Corners and his six friends, though, that he actually felt at home. Now, here was another little boy whose mother just might have ruined his life. Ezra's heart went out to Jamie. At least "their" girls obviously loved Jamie. He only hoped that John Terrell wouldn't let his dead brother's son be treated like another stranger in his home, a nuisance someone had to take care of for appearances. That was something that had happened to Ezra all too often.
The girls were too happy for their father to be a cold man, and Ezra hoped that John and Mark Terrell had been close enough that John would love his nephew like his own. Ezra was curious to know all that Mark Terrell had told Vin before he was killed, and how was he killed? And why did Vin think Jamie's mother was involved? How could anyone not love these two little girls, and how could any woman give her own flesh and blood to a vicious gang of kidnappers? He would have to wait like Chris and Buck for the answers until they got to Four Corners. And they would get to Four Corners. To fail would mean the death of three small children, and Ezra would go to his own grave before that happened. He continued to pat Alison on the back until he felt her finally relax into a deep sleep. He looked back over at Buck and at the sleeping child in his arms. Alicia was the mirror of her twin. Ezra smiled when he realized that if the twins were this adorable now, they would be lethal when they were grown. Ezra promised himself he would make certain that potential was realized. Little did he know that Buck was having similar thoughts.
Buck had always liked kids, but he had loved Adam Larabee like he was his own. Billy Travis and the twins had all reminded Buck just how much he missed Adam, and now there were three children trapped in a deadly scheme by another set of ruthless adults who didn't care who they hurt as long as they got what they wanted. Buck couldn't help Adam Larabee now, but he could show how much he had loved Chris's boy by keeping these children safe. He moved his horse closer to Chris and the sleeping boy.
"We can switch if you want." Buck looked at the boy sleeping as soundly in Chris's arms as Alicia was in his. Chris knew what Buck was trying to do. Good old Buck was trying to keep Chris from remembering how Adam would fall asleep in his arms just like Jamie had, but Chris wasn't ready to relinquish the boy. Somehow this boy reminded him of Adam. Both boys had suffered at the hands of men trying to get to their fathers, but this time the boy lived and the father had died. Chris almost envied Mark Terrell, but Chris didn't have time to dwell on the guilt of what might have been if he had been there with Sarah and Adam.
Chris had lived with that guilt for nearly four years now. This little boy had to spend the rest of his life wondering why his daddy had had to die for him. Death didn't make any easy choices, and Chris was beginning to realize that the dead were the only ones at peace. He had tried, really tried to keep his heart from caring again, but the last seven months with these men had shown him that he indeed still had a heart that wanted to live. He had fought his heart's return to life, but he had finally accepted that his six friends were more than friends. They were his brothers.
Then there were Mary and Billy. He could almost envision a future with them. Now, those twins had laid claim to another portion of his heart, and so too had this little grief-stricken boy. They needed him and that need made Chris feel something that he hadn't felt since the deaths of his wife and child. It was a fierce, protective streak that made Chris focus on one thing and one thing only. No one, absolutely no one, was going to hurt even a hair on any of the heads of these children who trusted him! NO ONE!
Before he could answer Buck, he heard a familiar whistle. Vin was back.
Vin nodded to Buck and Ezra as Chris moved his horse along side the trapper. Vin actually smiled at the sight of three gunmen carrying the sleeping children. "Everything's clear up ahead. I'll backtrack now to see if we're being followed."
"No," was Chris's reply. "The sheriff and his people promised to hold the kidnappers up as much as possible to give us a good lead. Let's keep moving. I want as much space between them and us as possible. We just ain't got the time or the horses for you to be goin' back and forth."
"But Chris. . . ."
"Vin, right now we need you here with us. We need to make sure we're not heading into a trap, and we need to make sure one of us can shoot if they catch up with us. You being the best shot means you ride without one of the children. Understand? You can keep us covered while we get these children to safety." Chris also didn't want Vin going off by himself and ending up in a situation similar to the one he'd already encountered earlier. Chris had told him then just to locate the kidnappers if he could and then return to let them know if it was safe. Instead, Vin had damned near gotten killed saving Jamie Terrell. If Mark Terrell hadn't made the decision for him, Vin probably would have risked his life to save both Terrells, and Chris would have lost Vin.
Vin nodded, accepting the sense of Chris's statement. Just because Chris made it sound reasonable, didn't mean he had to like it. But, the children's safety came first. Vin just didn't like feeling hunted and not being able to control the situation. It reminded him of what his life had been like with the bounty on his head before he'd come to Four Corners. It was such a luxury for Vin to be able to depend on someone else. After the encounter with Eli Joe, Vin had begun to depend on the other six men more so than he had ever depended on anyone else in his life. If Chris needed him to remain with the group, then he would remain with them. He didn't much relish the idea of anyone sneaking up on them and hurting the kids, so he nodded and took up a position in the rear.
Buck slowed his horse until he was alongside Vin. "They were askin' for ya, Ours." Buck was quick to pick up on the fact that the twins had gone from uncle to our, but he had also noticed that they didn't call Vin 'Our Vin' like they used 'Our' in front of the other three men's names. No, they just called Vin 'Ours'.
"What?" Vin looked at Buck like he had grown three heads.
"Ours. That's what they're calling you now," Ezra added his grin to his statement.
Vin flushed a little in the moonlight and just shook his head at the other two. This was just one more humiliating moment the twins had made possible for the tracker. He knew that Buck and Ezra would use the knowledge of the twins' attachment to him to tease him with in the future, but somehow he rather liked being singled out by the twins. It made him feel special, and he decided that being teased by Ezra and Buck was something he could live with. Besides, he had just as much ammunition on Buck and Ezra thanks to the twins. He looked at both men and grinned.
"Least ways I won't ride into town with baby drool all over my coat like you two." Ezra's eyes widened as he looked down at the sleeping child in his arms and then over at Buck. Sure enough, both little girls had their mouths open and were drooling all over their coats.
"Touché, my friend." Ezra grinned, tipped his hat to the tracker, and urged his horse to the front as Vin's soft laughter faded away behind him. Ezra was really getting to like having brothers around. Buck just grinned but then sobered just as quickly.
Nodding towards Chris and the sleeping Jamie Terrell he asked something that had been bothering him all evening long. "Did he see his pa get killed?"
"I hid him real good Buck, but his pa was already covered in blood. He'd been shot in the back of the chest. He was barely able to stay in the saddle." A shadow of regret passed over Vin's face, "If I'd known he was plannin' to make 'em think he was gonna try jumpin' that cliff, I'da stopped him. It just happened too fast for me to do anything but take the letter he pulled from his pocket and take the boy and hide him." Vin looked Buck in the eye, and Buck returned the look.
"You did the best any of us could've done, Vin, and Mark Terrell did the only thing he could do to save his boy. He gave him to you. Hell, I'da done the same thing as him. Ain't no blame for you or him here. You both did the only thing you could do at the time. Now we gotta get all these little ones back home safe and sound. You up to it?"
Vin replied with a look that promised nothing good for the gang of kidnappers, "What Sheriff Johnson don't clean up of the scum, we will." With that, he pulled his horse to a stop. "Y'all go on ahead. I'll wait here a bit and catch up later. Chris made me promise not to backtrack, but he didn't say nothin' bout stayin' back a bit and see what shows up. Tell him I won't be longer than a half hour, and I'll catch up at the river." With a grin, he waved Buck forward and sat back to listen to the sounds, waiting for anything that indicated danger. After about half an hour, he guessed that Sheriff Johnson had been able to delay the gang of kidnappers.
Vin had never expected the sheriff and his men from the town of Brecken to be able to stop the gang of murdering bastards cold, but he figured the determined sheriff would whittle the gang down and delay them as much as he could. Then the sheriff would probably give chase and harass whoever had escaped from behind in order to give them as much time as he could. At least if Vin had read the sheriff right, he would.
Trusting in his assessment of the man, Vin moved his horse forward along the trail. By now the group would be getting close to the area he had scouted earlier. He could easily catch up, and it was time to rest the horses, if only for an hour or so. At this pace, they would reach Four Corners by early morning. The only thing that could stop them was if the person running the show had been able to find out and put any men in position between them and the town. Vin spurred his horse into a faster pace.
What had Mark Terrell meant when he said it was his wife's fault the kidnappers had Jamie and were using him to get information from Mark Terrell about the twins? How could a woman turn her own boy over to those men? Had she, or had she trusted someone close to her husband who had turned out to be a traitor? It was beyond anything Vin had ever heard of, and he had seen some mighty bad things go down in his life.
It was also times like this when Vin wished he'd had time to go to school and learn to read and write, but that wasn't the direction his life had taken. He'd done all right so far, but, every now and again, Vin thought knowing how to read and write would be a pure pleasure. He shook those thoughts aside as he neared the others. Seeing they had stopped, Vin whistled and called out.
"Vin comin' in."