The seven men relaxed around the fire after a filling supper of beans, biscuits and the rabbits Ezra and Josiah had provided. Amid the deep, comfortable feeling of camaraderie, of kinship, that welled from them and caught each in its bond, further weaning from isolation men who for so long had lived imprisoned by it, stories came as naturally as breathing, and voices rose and fell in waves of sound as one after another shared a bit more of his life. Of himself.
Josiah spoke of the travels of his youth, his deep, resonant voice weaving a mystical spell of sight, sound and smell as he described the exotic people and places he had seen. JD, for whom such lands existed only in books, listened in wide-eyed awe, asking questions, his eager mind absorbing every detail as if his very existence depended upon such knowledge.
Ezra, too, proved a natural and gifted storyteller, his lyrical, honeyed drawl painting images of New Orleans, of Charleston and Savannah, of the Mississippi River and the fabled gambling boats that plied up and down her length. He spoke of the seedy and the spectacular, and brought both to vivid life.
Nathan spoke of his youth, his past, not of the brutal toil that had filled his days, or the even more brutal punishments that still marked his back, but of the people he had known, and of the stories they had told. He talked of men and women who had been born, lived and died in bondage, but whose souls had never been chained. And in listening to him, the men around that fire gained a deeper understanding and appreciation of the strength, courage and dignity they so admired in him.
Buck, naturally, told them of the women he had known, and of his grand and raucous adventures with them, again and again revealing his gift for bringing laughter to men who had known far too much of sorrow. But he also gradually brought Chris into the stories, sharing tales of their years together and getting enough of the details so wrong that Larabee felt compelled to set the record straight. And soon, with more than one appreciative glance at Buck, the six were listening to their usually taciturn leader sharing stories of his wild, adventurous youth.
One voice, though, had remained steadfastly silent, except for an occasional question or the characteristic wry and deflating barb thrown at Buck or Chris. Vin had been content to listen, eyes sometimes closed, soaking in the sounds of his friends' voices, picturing in his mind the images they created, simply breathing them ever more deeply into himself. He gathered the nuggets they shared as if they were jewels, hoarding them against the time when he might have need of such riches to sustain him. He'd learned early in life that such times as these, such people as these, were rare and fleeting, that they could be lost in the blink of an eye, and that they were gifts not to be taken for granted or forgotten. Memory held a powerful medicine for him, and he who had so little worth remembering crafted each new one as carefully as an artist would a painting.
But JD, filled to the brim with all the earnestness and deep goodwill of youth, could not permit his friend to remain outside the circle. These men mattered to him as no others ever had, as he knew no others ever would. He was past thinking of them as icons, as flawless idols, knew they were each imperfect and broken in a hundred different ways. Even so, they had about them a strength, a wisdom, something fierce and free and so wonderful that he still hoped to learn its secret and make it a part of himself as it was so much a part of them. Even through their cracks and flaws he saw their better natures, and wanted to shape himself in their image. These were true men, a dying breed, and he wanted nothing more than to be counted an equal in their company.
So he was not about to let Tanner, who had a knowledge of the earth and those things on it that the boy considered positively mystical, place himself outside that company. From experience, though, he knew that if he waited for Vin to join a conversation willingly, he could wait forever, and he just didn't have that kind of patience. It was one of the lessons from these men he had yet to master.
"Hey, Vin," he called when the others had fallen silent, sounding as if he'd been pondering the coming question for some time, "how come you call Peso `Peso'?"
All eyes turned at once to the tracker, who was clearly startled by the sudden attention. But he was stretched out on his bedroll, propped against his saddle, and too drowsy from a good meal, a cup of willow bark tea and a dollop of laudanum Nathan had slipped into his coffee to make any escape. And he'd gleaned enough from his friends that he felt obliged to offer them something in return.
So, without reservation or resentment, he answered simply, "'Cause that's what I paid fer 'im."
Five men blinked in astonishment, and JD blurted sharply, "A peso? You only paid a peso for a horse?"
Vin shrugged lightly. "Fer that horse, yeah." When his friends continued to gape at him, he added, "I couldn't jist let 'em shoot 'im."
Ezra took out his flask, took a drink and swallowed, still staring at Tanner. When the tracker appeared in no hurry to speak, he prompted, "I believe, my friend, that such a bald statement requires some elaboration. You have us all on tenterhooks here, and simply cannot leave it at this. You must continue."
Vin was confused by his friends' sudden interest in a horse they'd always seemed to despise, never realizing they were hoping to learn something about him through what he revealed. But he could see they wanted more, and was determined not to disappoint them. He licked his lips nervously, fought past his natural reluctance to speak, and continued.
"It was nigh on three years ago now," he said softly, staring into the distance as he spoke. Twilight was settling over the land, muting the fiery reds, purples and oranges that had burst across the sky at sunset to softer roses, violets and golds, and siphoning the uncomfortable heat of day from the air. High above, the slender crescent moon could just be seen, with a growing array of stars punctuating the darkening sky. "I's still bounty-huntin' then, and'd tracked a feller I's after down inta Mexico." He gave a slight, grim smile. "Texas law couldn't foller 'im there, but I could."
Chris smiled slightly. He'd seen Tanner on the hunt often enough to know how dogged the man was once he hit the trail. Boundaries and borders meant nothing to Vin Tanner when he had scented his prey.
"He was a real bad hombre," Vin went on, his slow, soft drawl holding his friends mesmerized. "Black Jack Harrigan. You name it, he done it. 'N most of it more'n once. Reward on him was five hunnerd dollars, dead 'r alive." He laughed. "Ironic, ain't it?" When his friends only shook their heads, seeming not to share his amusement at the grim joke, he shrugged and continued. "Natur'ly, he didn't wanta be took in, 'cause he knew he was gonna hang, so, when I caught him, I had ta kill him." He nodded firmly. "Reckon it was best thataway. Hell, he had a noose waitin' in so many towns, they'da likely never sorted out who had first claim. So I done 'em all a favor. 'Sides," he frowned, and his eyes narrowed, "the bastard'd kilt m' horse. Reckon he deserved ta die fer that alone. I took his, but it weren't nowheres near as good as mine. Damn, I hated losin' that horse!"
He took another sip of coffee, gathered his thoughts, and went on. "Anyways, I hauled his sorry carcass ta the nearest border town, turned him over ta the sorry bastard what called himself the sheriff, 'n got my money. Now, you gotta remember," his gaze sought out JD, who leaned forward expectantly, "them border towns is wild places. They's as much Mexican as American, 'n ain't much'a neither law in 'em. Sheriff usually makes his real money lookin' the other way, 'n Lord knows them Federales ain't always on the up-'n-up." He winked at JD. "Imagine a whole string'a towns jist like Purgatorio, 'n you got South Texas."
"Jeez!" the boy breathed in wonder. Sounded like he'd have plenty to do when he joined the Texas Rangers...
"Anyways," Vin narrowed his eyes and frowned in thought, "'long about the second day I's there, these fellers - Mexican banditos, I reckon - come thunderin' inta town with a whole string'a horses. Some stolen, I reckon, but others jist caught fer breakin' 'n sellin'. 'N they started breakin' 'em right there." His eyes and voice turned cold, and his face set hard in the firelight. "But their ways weren't none I'd ever use on any animal, 'n they ruint as many horses as they broke. They was out ta do it quick, 'n they didn't spare them poor animals no pity. 'S'all I could do not ta shoot 'em."
Chris scowled and let out a low hiss. He had an idea what Vin had seen, had seen such cruel methods used himself and had felt his own rage rise. He could well imagine how Tanner, who had a deep affinity for the spirits of all living creatures, must have felt in that town.
Then Vin's head lifted and his eyes flashed. "But there was one horse they couldn't break, no matter how they tried," he said firmly, proudly, remembering the splendid sight. "He fought 'em with all he had, took 'em on ever' one 'n laid 'em low. They'd got him too late, y'see, he'd been livin' wild 'n free too long ta let any'a them bastards beat 'im. But they tried," he spat through clenched teeth. "Lord God, how they tried! Used their ropes 'n spurs 'n even whips, had his mouth bleedin' from the bits they used 'n tied his legs so's he'd damn near break 'em if he moved wrong. But they couldn't break him."
Horror and outrage filled the men as they listened to Tanner's soft, shaking voice, as they envisioned the cruelty he'd witnessed. And, slowly, they came to understand a bit more about the horse most of them routinely cursed.
"It got ta be sport for 'em," Vin said, his low, hoarse voice dripping with a venomous hatred. "I offered ta buy 'im, but they wouldn't let 'im go 'til they'd all had a crack at 'im. Even tried ta steal him away one night, but they had too many guards. They was makin' money, y'see," he said bitterly. "They was takin' bets on whether they'd break him 'r kill him first."
"Sweet Jesus!" Ezra whispered, blanching and feeling sick. Throughout his life, he'd wagered on most anything one could imagine, and even some things one could not. But never, never had he sunk so low as to wager on anything as barbaric as the potential maiming or killing of an animal. Blood sport simply was not in his nature.
"I reckon near ever'body in town had a try at 'im," Vin went on, his soul aching at the memory of the exhausted, bloody but unbeaten horse. "Even when they gelded him, it drew a crowd."
"Aw, shit," Buck breathed, bowing his head and closing his eyes. He remembered all the threats he routinely flung at Peso, never intending any of them, and suddenly wondered how many of them the horse had actually experienced.
"I've seen his scars," JD said softly, sadly, hugging his knees to his chest and staring into the fire. "I wondered how he got 'em... I knew you'd never do those things," he said, looking at Vin, "but I've always wondered who could be low enough to do that kind of harm to a horse."
"Y' don't wanta know, kid," Vin sighed. "A man who'd do that to a horse'd do it to another man. To anybody 'r anything. Jist ta prove he can. Man like that..." He shook his head. "Ain't no man at all."
"What happened?" Chris asked softly.
Again, a grim smile curved about Vin's mouth and his eyes flashed in the firelight. "He kilt one of 'em," he said with a savage satisfaction. "Flung the bastard off his back 'n stomped him. 'N they was gonna shoot 'im fer it."
Josiah eyed Vin steadily. "I'm assumin' you managed to persuade 'em otherwise, brother?"
Vin shrugged. "Reckon so."
Chris arched a brow and gave a slight smile, familiar with a few of his friend's methods of persuasion. "Showed 'em the Tanner charm, did ya?"
"Shot one feller's fuckin' hand off!" Vin spat. "'N shot another'n in the knee." He lifted his chin and glared belligerently at his friends, daring them to disapprove. "Then I dropped a peso in the dirt, grabbed that horse by the reins 'n got the hell outta town." He gave a fierce nod. "I didn't steal him, though. I bought 'im fair 'n square!"
Josiah chuckled appreciatively. "And I'll guess no one dared debate that point?"
"Well," Vin said with a frown, "I had ta shoot two more of 'em. But that's only 'cause they was tryin' ta shoot me." He shrugged. "They missed, I didn't. The rest'a them fellers left me alone after that."
"I bet they did," Chris said with a smirk, imagining the spectacle of a band of horse-killing banditos subdued by a slender, outraged young man who spoke more eloquently with a gun than he ever would with words. "Nice ta see you've always had a way with folks."
"So what'd you do then?" JD asked, wanting to know more.
Vin shrugged. "Done what I always do when I git sick'a folks."
"Headed up inta the hills," Buck supplied knowingly. "Just you and your one-peso horse."
"Hell, no," Vin countered. At Buck's questioning look, he grinned. "It was me, my one-peso horse 'n the horse I'd took from Harrigan. Ya don't think I walked outta that town, do ya?"
"Couldn't've been easy," JD mused, thinking of that cruelly mistreated horse. "I mean, he musta hated people after that."
Vin nodded slightly, his eyes sad. "Still ain't jist real fond of 'em. Reckon we always had that in common. Ain't neither of us ever met too many we could trust." He swept his gaze over his friends. "I know y'all don't like him, but ya gotta understand. He was livin' wild 'n free 'til them bastards caught 'im, 'n then fer three days all he had from 'em was pain. He ain't got much reason not ta hate folks."
"There's you," JD put in quietly, resting an admiring gaze on his friend. "You helped him when nobody else would."
Vin shrugged and stared down at his hands, frowning. "Reckon I knew how he felt," he said softly. "I've had folks try ta break me a time 'r two..." He shook his head as if to clear away that thought, then said, "But he didn't know I's tryin' ta help him, so he fought me at first. I had ta blindfold him jist ta treat his hurts. After a while, though, I reckon he saw I wasn't gonna hurt 'im, 'n he'd let me tend him without the blindfold. I went real slow 'n easy with him, jist let him git used ta my touch, my voice, my scent. Hell, I even slept near him, jist so's he'd git used ta havin' me around. We wintered up in the West Texas mountains, jist me 'n them two horses. But when we come down agin, I tell ya," he nodded firmly, and a fierce pride shone in his eyes, "me 'n that one-peso horse could damn near read each other's minds, 'n we knew if we couldn't count on nobody else, we could count on each other. I sold Harrigan's horse, 'n it's bin me 'n Peso ever since."
"Well," Ezra murmured, "that grim tale certainly explains quite a bit." He grimaced deeply and shook his head. "I never thought I'd say this, yet I can't help but feel sympathy for - God help me - poor Peso. And now," anger crept into his voice as he recalled why they were here, "he has fallen once again into the hands of malefactors who cannot possibly have his best interests at heart."
"I'm gonna git 'im back," Vin said softly, grimly.
"We're all gonna get him back," Chris assured his friend. "I've never had any use for a thief, and I got even less for a horse thief." He locked gazes with Vin, and a vow was made between them. "We'll get ta Cutter's Pass tomorrow, pick up their trail from there, and find 'em. And we'll get back your one-peso horse." He smiled thinly. "And if you behave yourself and do what Nathan tells you, I'll let you shoot however many of 'em you want, wherever you want."
Vin lifted his chin and scowled at the gunman. "'N if I don't behave?"
Chris's grin widened. "Then I'll make you stand still and listen while Ezra, Josiah and JD talk 'em ta death."
+ + + + + + +
Roy Tarber's mind was working. Night had fallen, he and his men had safely reached Verde Canyon with the herd, and still there was absolutely no sign of those goddamn regulators from Four Corners. Larabee and his men had never even made it to Cutter's Pass.
He lay in his bedroll and stared up at the stars, thinking. True, Jake and his men had never made it back, either, which meant they were likely dead. But it was also looking like they'd taken care of Larabee's bunch, as well. Which left a whole new area of opportunity open to any man with brains and guts enough to take it. And Roy Tarber had always had plenty of both.
Nope, things weren't so bad, after all. Mexico and Miguel Santiago could wait. The James ranch wasn't the only spread in the area rich with stock. This territory was just ripe for the plucking.
After all, who was gonna stop him?
+ + + + + + +
Ignoring the men riding night guard and the other horses about him, Peso lowered his head and nibbled half- heartedly at the grass between his feet. He'd finally been allowed to graze, for the first time since being taken from the livery.
Still, being Peso, he wasn't content with such favors. He wasn't where he wanted to be, and it simply was not in his nature to stay where he didn't want to be. Despite his apparent docility, his instincts were sharp, his senses were alert, and his troublesome mind was working. As were his old habits.
Not wanting this grass, he sidled away to another patch, lowered his head, and nibbled. Still not happy, he spotted another patch, and moved toward it. Each new patch of grass took him a bit further from the guards, a bit nearer the edge of the herd, a bit closer to the break in the canyon wall through which he knew freedom lay. He was a mountain horse at heart, born and raised in the high country, and every instinct in him was urging him back to the hills that had always been home. So, coyote-smart, he doggedly grazed his way out of the herd, toward that break, careful to do nothing that would attract the attention of the predators who watched the herd.
And likely it would have worked, had some of the horses about him not chosen to follow him. He had characteristically spent most of his time among them trying to establish his dominance, loosing his foul temper on whatever poor animal had the bad fortune to wander too close to him. Yet even so, horse nature being what it was, some of the same animals whose lives he'd been making miserable attached themselves to him as his followers, and stuck with him as he drew away from the herd.
One horse sneaking off might not have attracted the notice of the night riders. A few horses scattered here and there throughout the canyon probably wouldn't have drawn their attention. But when they looked over and saw ten horses getting further and further away, the men sprang immediately into action.
"Goddamn it!" Milt shouted, rousing his compadres. "That sonuvabitchin' black is leadin' 'em off! Git 'im!"
Peso heard the commotion and knew it meant trouble. Forgetting stealth, he threw up his head and tail and raced for the break in the wall. But the gash in his foreleg had gone too long untended, he'd had too little feed, and pain, infection and hunger overcame even his powerful desperation. He could manage nothing like the speed he needed, and could not outrun the lasso sailing toward him.
Once a Texas cowhand, Milt did not aim at the horse's head, but at his forelegs. When the loop encircled both legs, he immediately jerked the rope tight, taking fast dallies about his saddle horn and sneering in vicious anticipation. "Gotcha, ya devil!"
And then it happened. Peso hit the end of the rope, still running, and was thrown ass-over-teakettle to the ground, landing hard. When he was down, another of the riders slid hurriedly to the ground, raced over to the fallen horse and tied three of his legs together, rendering him unable to rise.
"We'll jist leave ya there fer a while, ya sonuvabitch," Milt snarled at the helpless horse. "Letcha think about things fer a while." He pulled in and coiled his rope, shaking his head in disgust. "Cain't imagine what the hell Lem 'n Hank were thinkin' when they took ya," he spat. "But you keep this up, 'n I'll put a bullet 'tween yer eyes!"
The seven were awake at dawn, and breakfasted on the remains of last night's supper. Even Ezra managed to roll out of his blankets and pull himself to something resembling wakefulness, though he seemed to have lost the power of speech and stared at the cup of coffee Josiah pressed into his hands as if it were totally alien to him.
"Drink," Sanchez instructed with a sympathetic smile, wondering if the gambler had any idea where he was or how he'd gotten here.
And knowing they'd all best enjoy the uncharacteristic silence while it lasted.
When everyone had eaten, Nathan again sent four of them away so he could apply the liniment once more to Vin's battered body. He allowed Chris to stay, ostensibly to make sure Vin behaved, but more truly because he knew the tracker would feel more at ease with the man nearby. He doubted he'd ever really understand how two men so different in nature, so independent and so inherently solitary, had come to rely on each other so deeply and so instinctively, but he knew he didn't have to. All he really had to do, like everyone else, was simply accept it and be grateful for it.
Some things, after all, were never meant to be understood.
Nathan's ministrations were as painful as they'd been yesterday, but Vin knew they were necessary. The bruised muscles had stiffened up overnight, and, if he had any hope of riding - hell, of moving - today, he had to let Nathan's hands and the liniment work. So he accepted and tolerated the pain with a stoic forbearance, determined to endure whatever he had to for the sake of getting back his stolen horse.
And getting back at the bastards who'd stolen him.
+ + + + + + +
Dawes roused the men as soon as the sun appeared over the canyon walls, with the idea of starting at once for Mexico. He knew there were plenty of horses elsewhere, plenty of other places and ways to make money.
But only if he managed to avoid hanging or getting shot.
So, with the fear of Larabee and his men having been firmly and deeply planted in him by Roy Tarber, he was stunned - and not a little anxious - when Tarber told him to relax, that they would not be leaving just yet. Dawes listened in shock as his boss said they needed more horses to take to Santiago, that this area would make them all rich.
All the time he listened, his mind screamed that being rich didn't mean shit if he was too dead to enjoy it.
Tarber ignored his second-in-command's concerns and overrode his protests, refusing, as ever, to credit any thought that didn't spring from his own brain. If Larabee and his men were coming, he reasoned, they would've been here by now. Clearly Jake and the boys had taken them out of the picture. And with no other real law in these parts, the pickings were just too good to pass up. They were staying put until he decided otherwise.
"And jest ta keep the boys from gittin' too restless," he added with a leering grin, "we'll have us some entertainment. I've decided ta offer a bonus t' any man that can break that half-wild devil-horse Lem 'n Hank took from the tracker."
Dawes eyed his boss with a combination of disbelief and disgust. Larabee and his bunch were after 'em, and Roy wanted 'em all ta play bronc-busters! Jesus God in the mornin'!
Lem and Hank, who'd overheard the entire conversation, watched as Dawes stalked away, muttering and shaking his head. They exchanged confused glances, then walked away, as well.
Their steps took them near the blaze-faced gelding, and they stopped and stared at their "prize." He was hobbled and tied far from the herd, far from any grazing. None of his various gashes, including new ones sustained last night from the merciless ropes, had been tended, and the ones on his foreleg and nose had started to fester. Yet, for all his ragged, worn-down, beaten-up appearance, he still eyed them with an angry, threatening defiance, seemed not to understand at all that he was a captive or to care that he was about to become sport for a bunch of hard men lured by the promise of gold to do their worst to break that unyielding spirit. And as those fierce, dark eyes marked them, challenged them, Lem and Hank suddenly felt themselves touched by the same cold dread that had gripped Dawes.
"Ya know, don'tcha?" Hank asked the horse, certain the animal understood every word he was saying. "Ya know they're comin', 'n that Roy's sealin' all our death warrants by keepin' us here. 'N yer jist gonna keep us all distracted 'til they git here."
"Roy's a fool," Lem breathed bitterly. "A fool fer thinkin' them seven ain't comin', a fool fer thinkin' any of us kin break this horse, 'n a fool fer thinkin' we're all gonna be rich when all we're gonna be is dead. Well, hell," he spat, turning away from the black and staring up at Hank, "I ain't gonna be dead! Not fer the likes'a Roy!"
Hank blinked and frowned in confusion. "What're you gonna do?"
Lem scowled. "I'm gonna git my horse, 'n I'm gonna git my ass across the border, 'n I ain't comin' back! Gold ain't no good if'n yer too dead ta spend it." He nodded firmly. "I got enough already. I'm gonna git myself a cantina an' a se¤orita whilst I'm alive enough t' enjoy 'em. 'N if'n yer smart, you'll come with me."
"What about him?" he asked softly, gesturing toward the gelding.
Lem sighed sharply and shook his head in exasperation, setting clenched fists on his hips. "Face it, Hank, he ain't yers, 'n he ain't ever gonna be yers! That horse'll kill ya first chance he gits 'n high-tail it back ta that goddamn tracker. And, shit, as far as I'm concerned, Tanner's welcome to him!"
"He's a fine animal," Hank murmured longingly. "Purty, too. Real smart 'n real spirited." He swallowed hard and licked his lips, pondering his own words. "'N I reckon if'n I had me a horse like that, I'd be pissed as hell that somebody done stole him. Pissed enough ta kill whoever done it if'n I caught 'em."
"Well?" Lem prompted impatiently.
Hank sighed and shook his head mournfully. "Horse like this'n might be worth killin' fer, but he sure as hell ain't worth dyin' fer." He grinned suddenly down at Lem. "Reckon y' could use a partner in yer cantina?"
Lem thought a moment, then nodded. "Reckon I could. But," he warned, "you'll have ta git yer own se¤orita."
Hank's grin widened. "Reckon there's enough down there ta go around." He stepped forward to give the gelding one last pat, and immediately jumped back to avoid the wicked teeth that snapped at him. "Nope," he sighed, "on second thought I ain't gonna miss you at all. C'mon, Lem," he urged, "let's git outta here. I think I hear Mexico callin'."
They walked away without ever looking back, tacking their horses as the camp stirred to life about them, then mounting quietly. Looking for all the world as if they were doing no more than going out to check the herd, Lem Howard and Hank Fine made their break from Roy Tarber and from his inevitable fate. Only Dawes recognized their leaving for what it was, and he silently wished them well.
"One more thing, Hank," Lem warned softly as they left Tarber's gang behind, "you ever ask me ta help ya steal another goddamn horse, 'n I'll put a bullet 'tween yer eyes!"
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