Vin came to a stop in the livery yard and looked about with narrowed eyes, studying the six horses that stood tacked and ready and the five men who waited with them.
"Y'all goin' somewheres?" he asked in a low voice, suddenly and deeply suspicious.
Buck shrugged his broad shoulders and smiled amiably. "Figured you could use some help."
Vin's eyes narrowed further as he scowled at the big man. "Don't recall askin' y'all ta come."
Chris emerged from the livery, leading a tall, long-legged chestnut gelding with dark mane and tail. "Don't know how many of 'em there are," he answered, bringing the horse forward to Tanner. "I sure as hell ain't about ta let you go chasin' after a gang'a horse thieves alone."
Vin stared at the gunman. "Won't be alone. JD's comin'." His blue eyes, fixed on Larabee's face, held a challenge. "Seems he's got some damn fool notion that friends help each other."
Chris met that gaze evenly. "Can't imagine where he got that." He thrust the reins he held toward Vin. "Here."
Tanner seemed to notice the gelding for the first time, and frowned in confusion when he realized his gear adorned it. "What the hell is this?"
Chris exhaled slowly with a strained patience and took Tanner's arm, tucking the reins into the unresponsive hand himself. "I believe," he said, closing Tanner's fingers about the reins, "that in most places it's called a `horse.'"
Vin frowned at the older man in confusion, then let his gaze stray to the familiar tack. His confusion deepened, and his tongue ran slowly along his lower lip as he tried to work out what was happening.
"'At's my saddle," he said at last, very softly.
Chris nodded. "Figured you'd prefer it." He could see the battle for understanding going on in his friend's eyes and relaxed, inclined now to be patient as he could only be with Tanner.
The tracker studied the horse in the deep silence so characteristic of him, his face revealing only the barest trace of the countless thoughts and emotions whirling lightning-fast through his brain. He knew this horse. Ezra had won him in a poker game last week and, having no need for him, had sold him to Tiny, who'd already gotten several offers for him.
But none of that explained what the animal was doing out here, now, tacked with his gear and ready to go.
"Y'said..." The words slipped hesitantly from him as he returned puzzled eyes to Larabee. "Y'said... weren't none'a y'all lendin' me a horse." He frowned more deeply still and shook his head, not understanding this at all. "Thought y'all wasn't gonna help."
Chris winced in guilt at the plaintive tone in that soft voice. And he knew better than to lie to this man. "Thought so myself," he admitted quietly. "I didn't want you goin', banged up as ya are. Figured if I said we wouldn't help, maybe you wouldn't go." He gave a slight, wry grin. "Shoulda remembered who I was talkin' to."
Vin lifted his head at that, and his eyes flashed with his familiar stubborn spirit. "He's m' horse, Chris," he rasped. "I know he don't mean much ta y'all, but he's mine. 'N them bastards took him. I aim ta git him back." His blue gaze bored into Larabee, communicating a wealth of meaning, a wealth of hurt. "I ain't ever had much, but what's mine is mine. I ain't ever took nothin' from nobody, 'n won't have nobody takin' from me. Y'all're welcome ta ride along, but you need ta understand that I ain't comin' back 'til I find 'em. I'm gonna git m' horse back."
Chris grinned. "Then let's ride. We're burnin' daylight."
Tanner nodded once and gave a slight smile, his eyes filled with more gratitude than he could ever have put into words. And when Chris lightly grasped his shoulder, he knew no words were needed between them. Had ever been needed between them.
Chris took the reins of his black from Tiny and swung into the saddle, then tried not to watch as Vin mounted the chestnut, not wanting to see the pain he knew would cross his friend's face. Only when he could sense that Vin was settled in the saddle and breathing easy did he allow himself to look over at the tracker.
Vin waited until he was in full control of his voice, until his battered body had accustomed itself to this new position, then met Larabee's eyes. "Reckon we'll start at Cutter's Pass." His mouth curved into a crooked, boyish grin. "Gotta be some reason I's shot."
"You mean aside from your naturally winnin' personality?"
"Yer one ta talk, cowboy," Vin scoffed. "Goddamn slit-eyed gunfighter, stompin' around town like ya got a goddamn board up yer butt 'n scarin' the fleas off dawgs."
Green eyes glittered. "You through?"
Tanner's grin widened at the familiar glare. "Fer now." He started to knee the chestnut forward, then stopped. "So what's his name, anyway?"
"G'lithe?" Tanner snorted. "Shit, what the hell kinda name is `G'lithe' fer a horse?"
"Shut up and ride, Tanner," Chris growled. "Or I'll spare them thieves the chore of shootin' you again."
"Must be hell gittin' old," Vin snickered. "Makes ya awful damn crotchety in the mornin'." And before Larabee could answer - or shoot - he touched his heels to the chestnut and took off for the edge of town.
"Hey, Vin, wait up!" JD shouted, racing off after the tracker.
Buck brought his horse up even with Chris's as they followed and shook his head at Larabee's scowl. "I know, pard," he sighed, "I know. It's plumb hell raisin' kids."
+ + + + + + +=
"You did WHAT?!" Roy Tarber bellowed, stomping forward and staring in furious disbelief at his two cringing men.
"We s... stole the tracker's horse," Lem answered feebly, wide- eyed, pale and quivering with fear. "You said... you said ta make sure... he didn't come after us." At his side, Hank nodded vigorously.
Tarber narrowed his dark eyes and clenched his teeth, scowling deeply at the two. "Then why the hell didn'tcha jest kill 'im?"
"We tried!" Hank yelped. "We saw him day b'fore yeste'day in the pass, along about sunset. He looked like he seen our trail, so I shot him. Got 'im in the head, too," he said with some pride.
But Tarber was quick to deflate him. "But ya didn't kill him, did ya?" he snarled.
Hank grimaced and bowed his head. "Reckon not," he muttered, "'cause we seen him yeste'day afternoon, walkin' back inta town. But," he brightened and lifted his head, smiling, "he was busted up purty good! Horse'd threw him down into a ravine. Hell, he c'd barely walk! But that gambler friend'a his said he's a stubborn cuss, hard ta keep down. So," his grin widened, "me'n Lem here figgered we'd make sure he couldn't foller us by takin' his horse." He thrust his thumbs into his gunbelt and rocked back on his heels, enormously pleased with himself. "Purty smart, huh?"
Tarber stared at him, stunned by the depths of the man's stupidity. "Lemme git this straight," he growled in a low voice, his dark eyes narrowing dangerously. "You an' Lem here shot the bastard in the head, got him thrown off his horse, fixed it so he had ta walk back ta town, then stole his horse, that right?" When both men nodded, rage erupted through him. "IDIOTS!" he howled, leaping forward and backhanding Hank savagely, sending the man spinning into the dirt. "Goddamn, fuckin' idiots!" He grabbed Lem by his shirtfront and jerked him up close, glaring into his stricken face. "You got any idea what you done?" he spat.
Lem shook his head frantically, swallowing repeatedly, his eyes huge and glittering with terror. "We th... we thought... we'd jist make sure... he didn't come after us!" he whimpered.
Tarber shook the small man hard, then flung him into the dirt beside Hank. "Idjits!" he seethed. "You shot him, made him walk, stole his horse, and you think he ain't comin' after us? Ain't you got any idea who he is? Who he rides with?"
Hank frowned thoughtfully. "His name's Tanner, I know that. 'N there's this other feller, wears black-"
"That's Chris Larabee, you stupid shit!" Tarber shouted. "Meanest sonuvabitch this side'a hell! And that tracker's Vin Tanner. Mebbe you heard of him? Used ta be a bounty hunter, nearly always got whoever he went after, 'n wasn't jest real picky 'bout that `dead or alive' part. The man was taught ta track by Injuns, fer God's sake! 'N now you two stupid sonsabitches done gone an' pissed him off! What the hell makes you think he ain't comin' after us after you shot him in the head and stole his fuckin' horse?"
"Hell," Lem spat, rising shakily to his feet, "I don't reckon he'll come after that horse! He damn near shot it in the street yesterday, 'n I kin see why. That horse is a goddamn demon! Wouldn't nobody in their right mind come after him!"
"We ain't talkin' about nobody in their right minds," Tarber snarled. "We're talkin' about Larabee and Tanner! 'N you two idjits jest brought 'em down on us! Shit," he spat, seeing all his fine plans crumbling before his eyes, "we gotta move."
"Uh, boss," a hard-faced, sandy-haired man stepped forward, reluctant to risk bringing Tarber's fury down on himself, "Jake an' the others still ain't back with their bunch. 'Member," he added when Tarber took a menacing step toward him, "you sent 'em to the James place last night fer them horses we scouted out there?" He cleared his throat and smiled weakly. "They won't be back fer another few hours yet."
"Shit," Tarber hissed, unwilling to sacrifice the money he'd get for those horses. "Lem, Hank," he turned back to the two bruised and dirty men, "ride on down ta Milt and the boys, tell 'em ta git the herd t'gether an' started down inta the canyon. By the time they git movin', Jake an' his bunch should be here. We'll wait for 'em, then meet y'all down there."
Lem licked his lips nervously, then swallowed and nodded. "Right, boss," he agreed. "Reckon we'll jist leave this blaze-faced devil here with y'all." He swallowed again. "He'd only slow us down."
Tarber turned on the small man and gave him an unpleasant smile. "Hell, no," he sneered. "You wanted him, you stole him, now you keep him. You an' Hank." He chuckled harshly as Lem groaned and shook his head. "Consider him yer reward for bringin' Larabee, Tanner an' them others down on us."
+ + + + + + +
After four hours of steady, almost silent riding, the seven, with Vin and JD in the lead, came upon the cold remains of a small camp. Vin reined Goliath, or "G'lithe" as he drawled the name, to a stop and raised his right hand in the familiar cavalry signal to halt.
"Might's well check it out," he sighed, grateful for the excuse to stop. He'd felt it in his ribs, back and hip each time the chestnut's hooves had made contact with the ground, and had found himself missing Peso more than ever. He'd ridden the big black many a time in worse shape than this, and hadn't hurt nearly as much. The damn mule was as contrary as they came, but had a gait as smooth as cream.
As opposed to Goliath, who seemed determined to shake loose every bone in his body.
Bracing himself for what was to come, he bit his lower lip and started to swing out of the saddle as usual, but could not control the sharp, hissing breath that tore from him as pain shot through his back. He had to stop, half in the saddle, half out, unable to make his body go any further.
And instantly Chris was there. "JD, you get down, start scoutin' around," he ordered in a low voice. As the boy shot him an anxious look, he smiled slightly. "It's all right, I'll see to him."
JD nodded, swung down, and ground-tied his horse. With one last, worried look at Vin, he went off to do Larabee's bidding, knowing the gunman would be better able than anyone to help the tracker.
Chris stepped closer to Vin and reached up, laying a hand against the younger man's back. "It's all right, pard," he soothed. "Lemme give ya a hand."
Vin nodded wordlessly, eyes closed tight, his whole body shaking from the pain. But as Chris's strong, sure hands went about his waist, he willed himself to move, and let Larabee guide him to the ground.
"Obliged," he whispered unsteadily.
Chris held him until he was certain he wouldn't fall. But, even after he released Vin, he stood close enough to lend whatever support his friend might need. "'S'nothin'," he answered laconically. "Figured if I letcha fall, I'd only have ta listen ta you bitchin' about it."
Vin felt himself settling, felt the hurt receding to a more familiar, bearable level, and gave a shaky version of his cocky grin to Larabee. "Reckon ya might at that," he rasped.
Chris didn't like the younger man's pallor, didn't like the strain in his eyes or the tightness about his mouth, didn't like at all his seeming fragility. As much as he fumed at and cursed the tracker's stubborn toughness, his mulish tenacity and sheer grit, he realized now how much he depended on them, how much reassurance he took from them. It bothered him deeply to realize that the man he considered as sturdy and enduring as an oak was, in reality, as frail as any other man.
As he was himself.
And there was, he knew, only one way to bring back the Tanner he preferred. "Think you can get around enough to find anything," he challenged lazily, "or you wanta sit down and let JD do your work?"
Vin raised his head sharply at that, narrowing his eyes and scowling at the older man. "Don't need nobody doin' my work," he snapped, stung by the insinuation of uselessness. "Hell, I may be hurtin', but I'm still twice the tracker he is, 'n four times the tracker you'll ever be!"
Larabee shrugged lightly. "If you say so," he answered evenly, concealing his smile at the flame that leapt into the pained blue eyes.
"Fuck you!" Vin growled, pushing past the gunfighter and limping toward the remains of the camp, all the while sweeping the ground with his keen gaze.
Buck came up to Chris, grinning and shaking his head. "You know, pard, one'a these days he's gonna catch on ta you, then he's gonna carve you inta strips with that knife'a his."
"But not today," Chris said, smiling with satisfaction as he watched Tanner settle into a crouch and study the ground with intense concentration. "Not today."
Nearby, Ezra took a handkerchief from his pocket and dusted ineffectually at a large rock, then settled himself upon it. "Would someone please tell me again," he pleaded, unstoppering his canteen, "just why we are out roaming over this measureless expanse and why Mr. Tanner is crawling through the dirt in his present condition?" He wiped at the mouth of the canteen, then took a long drink.
Josiah pushed his hat back on his head and sighed. "Because he's lookin' for signs of whoever stole Peso."
"Oh, yes," Ezra said, replacing the canteen's stopper, "I remember now. I was hauled from my bed by you and Mr. Wilmington and forced almost at gunpoint out into this God- forsaken country because of a case of equine abduction. Good Lord," he breathed in disgust, "I still cannot believe anyone would want that cursed animal!"
"I wouldn't say that too loud if I were you," Josiah warned with a grim smile. "Vin ain't in the best'a moods just now. He's takin' this kinda personally."
Ezra stared past Josiah to the tracker, who seemed to have found something of interest and was studying it with eyes and hands. "I can't say I'm surprised," he said softly. "He is not a man overburdened by possessions, not one to attach worth to `stuff,' as he terms it, yet what little he does have, he holds dear. That wretched harmonica, for instance. Trash to us, yet treasure to him. And that monstrosity he calls a coat." He shuddered dramatically. "God knows what the attraction is there, but it is there nonetheless." He smiled slightly. "For so starkly utilitarian a man, our most practical tracker has a surprising streak of sentiment that runs straight through to his core."
Josiah stared at Ezra, amazed as always by the odd rapport between gambler and tracker. They were, outwardly, so different - Standish, polished, smooth, a creature of comfort and charm, a man to whom appearance was everything and whose own appearance was carefully calculated to conceal what lay beneath; and Tanner, rough, uneducated, candid sometimes to a fault and who couldn't have cared less about his appearance or what others thought, who was what he was and be damned to the world. At times, though, the kinship between the two was staggering. Both were loners, as much from necessity as by choice, both had learned early - too early - to depend only on themselves and that trust in others was a luxury they could not afford. And both were still struggling to accept, and made more than a little uneasy to find, that they now had a company of friends, of family, about them whom they could not only trust, but also trusted them.
Sanchez didn't know whether to be amused or worried by the sudden realization that Tanner and Standish were more alike than most people would believe.
"I believe our intrepid buckskin-clad bloodhound has found something," Ezra said softly, watching as Vin sat back on his heels and gave his familiar little nod. "No doubt he has discerned some clue among the weeds which will reveal not only the identity of the abductors, but their lineage, personal habits and political leanings, as well." He rose from his perch on the rock and arched a chestnut brow at the preacher. "Shall we allow him to elucidate upon his findings?"
Five men gathered about the kneeling tracker, with JD straggling in moments later from the ground he'd been studying.
"Well?" Chris prompted.
Vin squinted up at him, blue eyes shadowed by the slouch brim of his hat. "Two of 'em," he said quietly. "Same prints as in the livery. Two pairs'a boots, run down at the heels. By the size of 'em, one's a little feller, other'n's taller, got big feet 'n long legs."
"And how, pray, can you tell the length of his legs from his footprints?" Ezra asked, feigning skepticism to conceal his customary amazement at the tracker's skill.
Vin sighed and shook his head, then rose slowly to his feet, wincing and sucking in a breath from the effort. "Walk," he directed hoarsely.
Ezra blinked. "What?"
"Walk," Vin said again, carefully keeping his weight off his left hip and knee. "Y'know how ta walk, don'tcha?"
"I fail to see-"
"Ya wanta know 'r not?" Vin prodded. "Jist take a few steps, natural- like." He nodded toward Larabee. "Walk on over ta Chris."
Ezra frowned, but did as directed. "All right," he said, "I have walked."
Vin nodded, then turned to Buck. "Now you. G'on over to 'em."
Buck shrugged and did so, his path roughly parallel to Standish's. Vin went over to the tracks the two had made and knelt again, then motioned Ezra over to him.
"See here," he said, pointing down to the ground. "Here's yer tracks, 'n here's Bucklin's. His prints is further apart than yers, 'cause his legs is longer. 'N they're deeper, 'cause he's heavier, too. Now- Shit!" he hissed sharply, trying to rise but settling quickly back on his heels as pain flared through his back.
Without thinking, Ezra reached out and took his arm in a firm grasp to steady him, then moved closer and circled his other arm about the tracker's waist. "If you'll allow me," he said in his deep, honeyed drawl, heedless of the several startled glances directed at him, "I believe I can be of assistance. If, that is, you are amenable."
"Don't know... 'bout no 'menables," Vin rasped through gritted teeth, clutching tightly at the gambler's arm. "Jist know I hurt like hell!"
"Yes, I would imagine you do," Ezra soothed. "Now, lean on me, and let me do the work. And, please, whatever you do, try not to fall. I have absolutely no desire to wallow in the dirt."
Vin gave a soft laugh and, before he knew it, was on his feet, with only a minimum of pain. He turned to the gambler and gave a crooked, heartfelt smile. "Thanks."
Ezra seemed suddenly startled by his kindness, and stepped back from the tracker, covering his embarrassment by brushing the dust from his red jacket. "A momentary lapse, I assure you," he drawled. "Next time, I shall expect some form of monetary remuneration for my exertion."
Vin frowned, puzzling over "remuneration," then shrugged. "Hell, I reckon if that's somethin' I got, you'll jist win it from me at poker."
Ezra smile broadly, showing his gold tooth. "Now, that, Mr. Tanner, is a certainty. So," he glanced down at the tracks, then back up to Vin, "what else can you tell us about these poorly shod miscreants?"
"Well," Vin scratched his jaw thoughtfully, "I kin tell ya one of 'em's wearin' a brown coat."
Ezra's mouth fell open and he stared at the tracker in outright astonishment. "A b... You..." He dropped his gaze once more to the tracks, blinking rapidly, then snorted softly and returned his disbelieving gaze to Tanner. "That, sir, is impossible!"
Vin shrugged. "Not if ya know what ta look fer," he said mildly.
Chris was struggling not to smile. He'd noticed the gleam of mischief in the blue eyes, and welcomed the return of that sometimes strange sense of humor, even as he wondered what the tracker had in mind for the gambler.
Ezra studied Tanner closely, read nothing in the inscrutable face, and scowled. With another snort he turned away and swept his keen gaze over the ground, searching it as he would a deck of cards he knew to be marked and was trying to read. And while he admitted that his tracking skills were nowhere near Tanner's, he saw nothing at all in the dirt, grass, rocks and cold ashes about him that would give the slightest hint as to either of the thieves' apparel.
"I don't believe you," he declared, turning once more to face Tanner. "Prove it."
Vin shrugged again and stuck his thumbs into his gunbelt, returning Standish's skeptical gaze with one of utter innocence. "Ain't gotta prove nothin'," he said. "I know it, 'n that's good enough fer me."
"Well, not for me!" Ezra narrowed his eyes, studied the tracker a moment more, then laughed aloud. "A-ha!" he crowed. "You can't, can you? You have no more idea of what they are wearing-"
"Ain't an idea." Vin cocked his head slightly to one side and smiled. "It's a fact. Cain't tell which one, but one of 'em's wearin' a brown coat." He dropped his gaze to the ground, studying the tracks there intently for long moments, frowning, then nodded and raised his head. "Light brown," he said firmly. "Kinda like Buck's."
The others watched in unconcealed amusement as Ezra hurried forward and knelt, pouring all his concentration into the tracks at his feet. JD was grinning broadly at the spectacle, having an idea of what was coming, while the others, who didn't know, merely watched with the conviction that it would be good.
Ezra finally rose to his feet, stared into Vin's eyes, and said with quiet dignity, "You, sir, are a fraud and a charlatan. And I intend to debunk your exaggerated claims here and now, before these witnesses." He reached into his pocket, then paused, remembering who stood before him. "How much money do you have?"
Vin scowled. "That's kinda personal, ain't it?"
"How... much?" Ezra ground out through clenched teeth.
Vin frowned in thought and again scratched his jaw. "Lemme see. I bought cartridges last week, 'n a new shirt, on account'a there wasn't enough left'a the old one ta mend..."
Chris stifled a laugh as Vin continued to list his most recent purchases while Ezra fumed in impotent fury. Beside him, Nathan murmured, "Nice ta see him gittin' under somebody else's skin fo' a change."
"...'n some hard candy." Vin thought a moment, then nodded. "Reckon I got about five dollars."
"Now, hold on!" Buck protested. "Two days ago I paid for your beer 'cause you said you didn't have any money!"
Vin turned to him, blue eyes all innocence. "I didn't," he said easily. "I'd fergot about it 'n left it in my wagon."
"You f..." Buck sighed heavily and shook his head. Only Vin Tanner could forget about money.
"Let us get back to the business at hand," Ezra ordered impatiently. Reaching into his pocket, he drew his money and held it before Vin. "Mr. Tanner, I have here five dollars which says you cannot possibly know what color coat your horse's unfortunate abductor is wearing! And I demand that you either prove your preposterous boast, or surrender your five dollars."
"Aw, hell, Ezra," Vin groaned, "ya don't really wanta do this, do ya?"
Triumph flared in the gambler's green eyes and an exultant smile spread over his face. "There, you see? I have unmasked you! To put it crudely, Mr. Tanner, either put up, or shut up."
Vin sighed and winced. "Ya really wanta do this? Yer sayin' there ain't no way in hell I kin know what that bastard's wearin', 'n yer gonna put money on it?"
"Uh, Vin," Josiah said gently, "that is Ezra you're talkin' to."
Vin sighed again and shrugged. "All right. But jist remember, this wasn't my idea." He nodded firmly. "Brown coat, same brown as Buck's." He gave a slight grin and winked. "Got dark brown buttons on it. 'N I kin prove ever' word."
"Hah!" Ezra barked. "I defy you to show me this so-called `proof'."
Vin's smile spread slowly and his blue eyes lit with a wicked humor as he slowly knelt to the ground. When Ezra knelt before him, and the other five had gathered close, he pointed to one of the tracks with his left hand, then reached with his right into his coat pocket. While Ezra stared intently at the ground, Vin drew out a folded bit of cloth, unrolled it, and dropped it into the dirt over the footprints.
"That proof enough?" he drawled, watching as Ezra went pale at the sight of the coat sleeve. The light brown coat sleeve, with two dark brown buttons at its cuff. He held out a hand. "I'll take my five dollars now."
Ezra stared at the sleeve, then at the upturned palm, then back to the sleeve, and finally into the tracker's smiling face. "You... you... cheated!" he sputtered. "You said... you said you could tell... from the tracks..."
"Nope," Vin corrected. "I never said nothin' 'bout no tracks. Jist said ya had ta know what ta look fer. It was you who," he screwed up his face in thought, then smiled again, "who inferred all the wrong meanin'." He glanced up at Chris for confirmation that he'd used the word correctly, and received a nod and a smile, then returned his gaze to Ezra, who still looked as if he'd been snake-bit. "Then ya called me a fraud 'n that other thing, so I reckoned ya had it comin'." He tapped the sleeve with his forefinger. "Found this in the liv'ry, along with a laudanum bottle 'n some other bits'a cloth. I reckon Peso tore it off one'a them fellers whilst he was fightin' 'em."
"Good Lord," Ezra muttered, raising grudgingly admiring eyes to the tracker. "You employed all the tricks. You knew I had formed a mistaken impression of your words, and you led me skillfully down the path, even glancing at the ground yourself to give the impression you saw it there..." His words trailed off, and he laughed softly, his shock overcome by appreciation for a masterful exhibition of his own dearly-loved art. "You're a natural! So seemingly guileless, so reluctant to take what you knew to be a sure bet... You know, Vin, you and I really should talk some time about your woefully under-used gifts. I dare say that, together, you and I could discover some mutually lucrative application for them."
Fear stabbed hard and cold into Chris, a fear amounting almost to panic, at the thought of those two conspiring. Nathan, seized by the same thought, groaned audibly, while Josiah uttered a soft, "Lord have mercy." Buck shifted uncomfortably as all manner of unpleasant - and costly - possibilities unfolded before him, while JD decided to watch the two more closely still to see what else he might learn from them.
"Tell ya what, Ezra," Vin rasped softly, leaning close to the gambler, "you help me stand up agin, 'n you kin keep yer money." He winked. "Consider it yer rem... remin..."
"Remuneration," Ezra supplied in a whisper. He smiled warmly. "I accept your terms."
And while the others watched in surprise, and not a little dread at the unnerving alliance being born before them, the gambler assisted the hurting tracker to his feet with the utmost gentleness. Vin nodded his thanks, and Ezra smiled in return and gave his familiar two-fingered salute.
Giving Vin time to compose himself, Chris turned to JD. "You find anything?"
The boy nodded. "Like Vin figured, the tracks seem ta lead toward Cutter's Pass. Strange thing, though," he added, frowning in thought. "Three sets of horse tracks just sort of wandered off in one direction, with some boot tracks here and there. But if they had three horses, why would they be afoot? And those tracks didn't lead ta Cutter's Pass. Looked like they were headed back ta town."
Vin chuckled softly. "Peso," he murmured. When the others turned to him, he explained, "Mule's a natural-born bunch-quitter. He'll wander off at the drop of a hat if ya don't tie him good." His smile faded and he bowed his head. "Reckon he was tryin' ta git home," he breathed.
JD looked up at Buck. "They musta caught him, though. From the way the tracks were spaced, looks like he was hobbled. But when they headed for Cutter's Pass, he was runnin' free."
Buck gave a grim smile. "Gotta pity the poor sonuvabitch who had ta take them hobbles off. Can't imagine Peso made it easy." He saw JD's worried frown and laid a big hand on the boy's shoulder. "Don't worry, son, we'll find him. Won't none of us rest until we do."
JD looked up at the big man and read the sincerity of the words in his blue eyes. "You ain't makin' fun anymore," he said quietly.
Buck sighed and glanced past JD to Vin, who still stood with his head down, his weight off his left side. "No, I ain't," he breathed, a note of anger creeping into his voice and eyes. "Them bastards stole Vin's horse, got Vin out here when he ain't got no business bein' here, got him hurtin' as bad in spirit as he is in body. And there just ain't nothin' ta make fun of in that."
Chris, too, saw Vin's hurt and went to him, laying a comforting hand on one bowed shoulder. "How you holdin' up?"
Vin shrugged. "Reckon I'll make it," he drawled softly. He lifted his head and raised blue eyes filled with pain and anger to Larabee's face. "Cain't promise the same fer them when I find 'em."
Chris smiled thinly. "I figure they deserve whatever they get." He looked up as Ezra approached. The gambler was holding the sleeve that had nearly cost him five dollars and frowning thoughtfully. "You admirin' the tailor's handiwork?" he quipped.
Ezra held out the sleeve. "I've seen this," he said quietly. He raised his eyes to Larabee. "You remember the two men I said had shown a rather troubling interest in Vin? The two cretins from last night's poker game?" When the gunman nodded, he said, "One of them, the neanderthal named Lem, I believe, was wearing a coat that matched this."
Chris scowled and narrowed his eyes. "You sure?"
Ezra smirked. "I would wager considerably more than five dollars upon it."
"What two men?" Vin asked.
Chris seemed not to hear him. "So they weren't bounty hunters. They were horse thieves."
"What two men?"
"Oh, it gets more interesting," Ezra said, ignoring Vin as well. "They knew Peso was Vin's horse; they'd witnessed their altercation in the street. And they knew Vin works with us to uphold the law."
"What two men?" He looked from Larabee to Standish, but neither seemed to notice him.
Chris frowned in puzzlement. "Then why take his horse? If they knew who he was, knew he was one of us-"
"They seemed most interested in hearing that he was too incapacitated to perform his duties," Ezra said thoughtfully. "They knew he was a tracker..." He laughed aloud as the answer came to him. "Good Lord, can they really be that obtuse?"
"What?" Chris prompted.
Ezra smiled broadly and shook his head. "Honestly, the stupidity exhibited by people never ceases to amaze me!" He regarded Chris with wry amusement. "I believe they were attempting to ensure that Vin did not come after them by stealing Peso, in the mistaken and utterly moronic belief that being injured and bereft of said horse would somehow restrain him-"
"Goddamn it, what two men?" Vin shouted, stepping between Larabee and Standish and glaring up at Chris. "What the hell're you two yammerin' about, 'n jist when the hell did I disappear?"
"Sorry, pard," Chris said quietly. "There were two men in town, playin' poker with Ezra and askin' questions about you." He shrugged. "We thought there was a chance they might be bounty hunters-"
"'N you didn't think you should tell me 'bout that?" he asked sharply. "Goddamn it, Larabee-"
"Now, hold on!" Chris cut in. "It was a chance, but a small one. And, no, we didn't tell you because you were already in bed where you belonged, and I wasn't about to wake you because some two-bit, dumber-than-shit bastards were askin' a lotta questions about you! You were safe, Vin," he said softly, reaching out to lay a hand on the tracker's shoulder. "We were lookin' out for ya. Just like we always are. And you needed ta rest more than you needed ta worry."
But Vin refused to be mollified. "If I'da knowed they was lurkin' about, I coulda stopped 'em from takin' Peso," he muttered darkly.
"And maybe gotten yourself killed instead," Chris said harshly. "Sorry, pard. I know what Peso means to ya, but your life ain't a fair exchange for his." He gazed steadily into the angry blue eyes. "We can get him back from horse thieves. Ain't no way we can get you back from death."
Ezra heard Vin's sigh, saw his shoulders slump, and felt a twinge of sorrow for him. "We will get him back, Vin, I assure you," he said quietly. "If the other members of the band are anything like the two inferior specimens who sullied my table with their ineptitude, then, believe me, they don't stand a chance in hell against us."
Vin said nothing, and Chris squeezed his shoulder reassuringly. "Come on, pard, let's get mounted. We won't catch 'em standin' here."
Vin nodded, and turned without a word, limping to the patiently waiting Goliath. Shrugging off Chris's attempt to help, he pulled himself painfully into the saddle, and, when the others were ready, lightly spurred the chestnut toward Cutter's Pass.
Chris rode just behind him, hurting for the friend who hurt in so many ways himself.
+ + + + + + +
Two hours later, they heard the faint echo of gunfire and what sounded like low, heavy thunder. Vin immediately reined Goliath to a stop and reached for his spyglass, extending it and putting it to his eye, and scanned the horizon with it. The sound triggered memories from his buffalo hunting days, and, when he saw the dust cloud rising in the distance, he knew he had been right.
"Hooves," he reported tersely, collapsing the glass and returning it to his pocket. "Let's ride."
Without waiting for consent from Chris, he spurred Goliath to a run, having to admire - however grudgingly - the gelding's fine speed. The long, strong legs flew effortlessly over the ground, eating up distance as if it didn't exist, and when Vin leaned forward in the saddle and over the animal's neck to urge him to go faster still, the chestnut replied at once, running as if all the devils of hell were at his heels and never showing any sign of laboring.
Chris swore harshly as the tracker took off and spurred his black after the racing chestnut. Tanner was riding as if there weren't a thing in the world wrong with him, as if his body could take the punishment, and Chris could only imagine how the man would pay later. But he knew what Vin had made of what he'd heard, knew what the tracker was thinking, and knew he couldn't have stopped him if he'd tried.
And, truth to tell, he wasn't sure he wanted to try. Not if it meant ridding the territory of these damn horse thieves.
"Whoo-HOO, look at 'im go!" JD whooped, watching the chestnut with rapt adoration. "Lookit those legs, Buck!" he hollered to his friend. "I told ya that horse was a runner!" And with that, he urged his own horse faster, leaned over to get still more speed, and tore away from Buck.
"Damn fool kid!" Wilmington shouted. "Ain'tcha ever heard'a gopher holes?" Nonetheless, he spurred his grey forward, his eyes glowing with the same exultation that shone on JD's face.
Soon six men were streaking along behind Vin, little knowing where they were going, but trusting implicitly the instincts of the man in the lead. Again the gunshots rang out, louder this time, and the drumming of hooves was becoming more distinct. The large dust cloud was visible to the naked eye, and the six realized Vin was leading them on an intercept path.
"Hell and damnation," Ezra swore in frustration. "I knew it was too much to ask that a sojourn into the wilds not be punctuated by the threat of damage to my person! But must the man actually seek out these uncomfortable confrontations between ourselves and the criminal element?"
"`Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness,'" rumbled the deep, familiar voice at his left. "`And your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace; Above all, taking the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked.'" Josiah winked. "St. Paul to the Ephesians."
"Fiery darts, hell," Ezra grumbled as Sanchez rode past. "I am far more concerned with what the good apostle had to say on the issue of bullets!"
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