They reached Cutter's Pass after three hours of hard, determined riding, with Vin leading them up into the steep, rocky hills and then into the pass that cut through the rugged, brush-covered heights. And though he'd come to respect Goliath for his unmistakable quality, Tanner sorely missed Peso now, for the chestnut was nowhere near as comfortable on such tricky ground as the black, who was as sure- footed as any mountain goat.
Hell, Peso could damn near sleep-walk over ground like this!
After an hour of climbing, the trail leveled out somewhat, and Vin reined to a stop. Sharp, rugged crags rose on one side of trail, while on the other the ground dropped sharply away into a steep ravine before jutting up once more. He glanced about, and only barely suppressed a shudder.
Chris noticed his friend's reaction, saw the bowed back stiffen, the hands tighten on the reins, and understood. "This is where it happened, isn't it?" he asked quietly.
Vin nodded, and eased himself stiffly out of the saddle. "Yeah," he breathed, his blue eyes darting all about as if he expected the gunfire to resume. "Couldn't tell ya where the shots come from. It happened s' fast, 'n they was ricochetin' off all these damn rocks. Then I's hit..." He licked his lips, trying to get his jangling nerves under control. "'N that's the last thing I recall b'fore I woke up down yonder." He waved a hand toward the ravine. "I'd found some tracks, 'n follered 'em ta here. But by then I's losin' the light, 'n I figgered I'd have ta sleep up here 'n wait fer mornin' ta see where they led me. Then them bastards started shootin', 'n it turned out I spent the night down there, wedged in amongst them rocks, with my head feelin' like it'd been split open 'n ever' part'a me hurtin' somethin' fierce. Thought I'd die from the pain alone when I had ta climb back up..."
Chris dismounted and walked to Vin's side, laying a hand on one shoulder and squeezing to reassure his friend that it was over, and that he was not alone. Vin turned and gave him a slight smile, thanking him without words.
"So where's this lead?" Chris asked, hoping to turn Tanner's mind away from that night.
Vin turned and walked forward a bit, with Larabee following. The trail before them remained level for what looked to be about half a mile, then began sloping back downward.
"See where it dips?" he asked, pointing. "It curves around a mite, too, then forks off inta branches. You kin keep goin' higher up, 'r you kin go back and down. 'N there's some good- sized canyons down thataway." He turned his head slightly and gazed at Chris from beneath the brim of his hat. "If I's tryin' ta hide some horses I didn't want nobody knowin' I had, likely I'd find a place down there."
Chris rubbed a thumb thoughtfully along his chin. "How well do you know these hills?" Vin shot him a disgusted glare, and he had to laugh. "'Scuse me, I forgot who I was talkin' to. Where would you go?"
Vin stared ahead and chewed his lower lip, studying the terrain in his mind. But as he thought, out of long habit he settled his weight on his left hip, then stiffened immediately and gave a low hiss of pain.
"For God's sake, sit down!" Chris ordered, absently shifting his own weight. "Hurts me just ta watch ya!"
"Don't watch then," Vin snapped, hating the pain that restrained and determined his every movement. "I didn't ask ya ta come along, y'know!"
Chris met his friend's glare evenly and nodded. "I know," he said quietly. "But I'm here anyway." He gestured toward the men behind him. "We're all here."
Vin's anger deserted him then, and he bowed his head and nodded. "I know," he rasped. "'N I'm obliged. Means a lot..." He sighed tiredly and eased himself slowly down onto the ground, trying to find some position that didn't hurt some part of his body, and failing. "I hate this," he breathed.
Chris squatted beside him. "I know. As soon as we find these bastards, we'll go home and you can rest." He grinned. "Assumin', of course, you ever learn what `rest' means."
Vin cocked his head slightly to one side and stared at him, blue eyes mischievous beneath the shade of his hat. "Reckon it means anything like gittin' a minute's peace from some goddamn uppity gunfighter who's always chewin' on my ass?"
Chris's grin widened, and his green eyes gleamed. "Somebody's gotta keep you in line, Tanner. 'Sides," he arched a golden brow, "last time I wasn't around ta chew on your ass, somebody shot it outta the saddle."
Vin scowled. "Hell, I reckon they jist mistook me fer you. You got a real talent fer pissin' people off, y'know."
"It's the company I keep," he quipped. "I've learned from the best." The tracker snorted softly and shook his head, and Chris was relieved to see him at ease, his pain momentarily forgotten. "All right, you got a herd of horses you don't want nobody knowin' you got. Where would you hide 'em?"
Vin pushed his hat off his head and ran a hand through his sweat- matted hair. "Depends," he murmured, returning his attention to the matter at hand.
Chris sighed and rose to his feet, knowing that tone and that look. Vin was a long thinker, a man who turned over every detail in his mind and got them all fitted together to his own satisfaction before putting them into words. He was thorough, deliberate and almost always right, but, Christ, a man could get old just waiting for him to speak.
He walked back to where the other five men waited and waved them down. "Might's well rest, boys, give the horses a breather. Vin's ponderin'."
"Never let it be said that I would begrudge one of my associates the exercise of his intellectual faculties," Ezra said with ill-disguised relief, dismounting gratefully. "Particularly when it provides a much-needed respite from the rigors inflicted upon my sensitive posterior quarters."
"What?" JD asked.
Josiah swung down from his saddle with a sigh. "His butt's sore."
Chris watched the boy swing down from his saddle with far more ease and energy than he should have possessed after so long a ride and marveled again at the resilience of youth. Then, supposing such qualities should be rewarded, he suggested, "JD, why don't you have a look around, see if you can find any sign of either horses or men movin' through here recently. The rest of ya, water the horses, water yourselves. Ain't no sense wastin' time while we got it."
JD took off at once, eager to put the tracking skills he was learning from Vin to work, and Buck shook his head after the departing sheriff. "One'a these days," he sighed, "that boy's gonna learn ta walk. Hell, just watchin' him wears a man out!"
Chris regarded his old friend with a slight grin. "I seem ta recall sayin' that about you last Saturday night, when you were dividin' your time between Violet and Rose."
Buck smiled broadly and wagged his eyebrows at the thought of the two lovely working girls. "Man's gotta stop and smell the flowers, ol' pard."
Green eyes glinted warmly. "Don't recall you stoppin' at just smellin'. Stud."
Buck heaved a long, martyred sigh. "Yeah, I tell ya, sometimes this animal magnetism's a curse. You boys oughtta just be grateful it's me that's got it and not y'all. It can be a heavy load ta bear."
Josiah chuckled and shook his head. "And speakin' of heavy loads, I think we're gettin' one dumped on us now."
Buck clapped a hand to his heart as if he'd been shot and cast a wounded look at the preacher. "You boys just go no appreciation for what it's like ta be me!" he declared.
"Nor do we ever wish to cultivate such an appreciation," Ezra drawled, sweeping a disdainful gaze over the big man. "God alone knows why you have not dropped dead from exhaustion or some horrible disease long before now."
While his friends bantered among themselves, Vin pulled himself slowly, painfully, to his feet, again cursing the bastards whose shots had sent him tumbling down into that ravine. Lord, he hoped Peso was makin' their lives hell right now!
He limped to where his friends stood and greeted them with a nod. "There's two likely places ta hold a good-sized herd with grazin' 'n water," he said without preamble. "Closest one is Painted Rock Canyon. It'd do, but it's jist off the main trail, 'n if I's holdin' stolen horses, I'd be awful nervous about bein' found too easy."
"And the other?" Chris asked, already knowing which location Vin considered the most likely.
The tracker met the gunfighter's gaze and nodded. "Verde Canyon. There's a spring in there keeps it watered and in grass nearly all year 'round, 'n it's so far back 'n down ya gotta know where it is ta find it. Ain't but two ways in, 'n the back way'll take ya on through these hills, out inta the desert and, in about a day, on inta Mexico. Best of all, don't need more'n a couple'a men with rifles ta guard either entrance."
Vin thought a moment, then said, "Reckon we're lookin' at another three hours."
Larabee studied his friend steadily. "And that's the one you'd pick?"
"If I didn't wanta be found, yeah."
Chris nodded. "All right. We'll wait for JD, see if he's found anything, then head for Verde Canyon. It's time we shut these bastards down."
+ + + + + + +
"Yer worryin' over nothin', Dawes!" Tarber spat at his second-in- command. "They ain't comin'! If they was, they'd'a been here by now!"
"We don't know that fer sure, boss," Dawes insisted calmly. "Look, all I'm sayin' is we gotta be careful. We come this far without bein' caught, it won't do no harm at all ta keep bein' careful." He stared at his boss, willing him to understand, to agree. "Jist a couple'a guards in them rocks at the entrance. The rest'a the boys kin stay here 'n do whatever the hell they want ta that damn horse. Jist two is all we need."
Tarber narrowed his eyes and sneered. "Yer gittin' too nervous, Dawes," he said contemptuously. "Startin' ta jump at shadows. I need steady men with me, men I can depend on ta be calm. I'm startin' ta wonder if I can depend on you." He swept his hard, dark gaze scathingly over his second. "I'm beginnin' ta think you've lost yer nerve."
Anger swept through Dawes at the accusation, and he took a step nearer his boss. "I seem ta recall you gittin' awful nervous when ya heard Larabee was after us," he seethed through clenched teeth. "Seem ta recall you fixin' ta high- tail it ta Mexico at the mention'a the bastard's name. Yeah, you were real nervous then." He scowled deeply. "Well, he's still comin', Roy. Jake wasn't good enough ta stop them fellers, 'n you know it. Yeah, Jake's more'n likely dead now, but Larabee ain't. 'N it's jist stupid ta sit here 'n wait fer him 'n his gang ta swoop down on us. Gold ain't no good to a dead man."
Tarber's powerful frame stiffened, and his face flooded with fury. "Who you callin' stupid, you sonuvabitch?" he snarled, backhanding Dawes viciously and sending him sprawling to the ground. "You ferget who I am?"
Dawes wiped a shaking hand across his bleeding lip and stared up at his boss. "No, I ain't fergot who ya are," he said in a low voice. He pulled himself slowly to his feet, his eyes never leaving Tarber. "Jist thinkin' mebbe you ain't who I thought you was." He shook his head slowly, blue eyes hard and cold. "You wanta stay here 'n die? Fine. Jist don't expect me ta do it with ya. I'm through." He turned on his heel and walked away.
"Not until I say ya are!" Tarber growled. He pulled his gun from its holster, raised it and, without warning, fired.
Dawes jerked forward with a harsh cry and spun as the shot slammed through him. He hung there motionless for a moment, then crumpled bonelessly to the ground, eyes wide and sightless, his chest torn open by Tarber's bullet.
Roy holstered his gun and walked forward, staring down into the lifeless face of his former second-in-command. "Well, Dawes," he said with a grim smile, "I reckon yer through now." He looked up and saw his men staring at him in a mixture of terror and shock. "All right, boys," he called, "what's say we have us some fun with that black devil of a horse?"
+ + + + + + +
Vin focused his attention on the ground, studying it intently, reading it as easily as others read words on a page. His keen eyes picked up a wealth of sign that spoke volumes to him, that told of men coming and going, in twos and threes or larger groups, of horses brought through here from a number of different directions over a considerable period of time. His six friends saw some of the more obvious tells themselves - droppings, rocks scraped by hooves and the like - but could not glean from them all that the tracker could.
Chris had relinquished his place at Vin's side to JD, hoping that youthful, open spirit would somehow lift Tanner's, and the boy watched the tracker in rapt fascination, amazed as always at how much the man knew. Oh, sure, Vin wasn't what most folks would consider "educated," and was, JD had only lately realized, barely literate. But what Tanner knew couldn't be found in fancy books, college lecture halls or newspapers, couldn't be absorbed from a lifetime of reading. He knew the land and all that lived upon it, knew the elements, the seasons, the patterns and vagaries of life in the wilderness. And he knew them as an intimate part of himself, felt their turning, their living and their dying in his blood and his bone. His life was so attuned to them that he was actually part of them, and they a part of him, and JD was in absolute awe of an arcane knowledge he had never suspected existed before he came out West.
Lord, the man was a wonder to watch!
And, watching him now, JD knew Vin had found something. The tracker was squatting on his haunches and leaning forward, head bowed and gaze riveted to the ground, the fingers of his right hand brushing lightly, even lovingly, over whatever he had found in the dirt. Except for the movement of those fingers, Tanner sat absolutely still. For a moment, JD would have sworn the man had stopped breathing.
"Vin?" he called quietly, worriedly, reading something in the tracker's posture, in the gentle caress of those long fingers against the dirt, that tugged at his heart. "You all right?"
"C'mere, kid," Vin rasped softly.
JD slid from his horse's back and walked forward, then knelt at Vin's side, careful not to disturb anything on the ground. "Yeah?"
"Look," Tanner breathed.
JD did, following the line of the tracker's gaze and the movement of his fingers. It was a nearly perfect imprint of a horseshoe in the soft dirt, so fresh it was reasonably untouched by weather, its detail not yet blurred or eradicated by the comings and goings of other creatures.
"Tell me whatcha see," Vin instructed, his voice still soft, even for him.
JD blinked in surprise, then studied his friend for any sign of teasing. Vin had been teaching him about tracking, and often asked questions to see what he had learned, but this request was different. It sounded as if Vin were asking him for confirmation of what he saw, and the boy simply could not imagine the tracker honestly needing another opinion. But when Vin raised his gaze to him, the blue eyes almost pleading, JD knew that was exactly what he was asking, and was stunned that the tracker should be looking to him for help.
Stunned, and not a little proud. Vin needed him.
Sensing the import of this, the boy shoved aside his surprise, his pride, and focused his whole attention on the ground before him. He swallowed hard and licked his lips, then willed himself to relax, remembering every lesson Vin had ever taught him.
Don't git lost in the details. There's a picture there, 'n you gotta see the whole thing.
He forced himself to look away from the clear print where Vin's fingertips still rested and surveyed the surrounding ground with his gaze, noting details but not getting lost in them. Vin had once told him the details were like pieces of a puzzle, and it was his job to put them together.
"There's no such thing as a one-legged horse," JD breathed, "so there's gotta be more tracks." There were, and he found them, smiling in satisfaction. "Big horse. Tracks are deep, so he's movin' slow, not runnin'. And..." His voice trailed off and he frowned thoughtfully, comparing the tracks that would have been made by the front hooves. "He's favorin' the off fore. That print ain't as deep, he ain't puttin' all his weight on it. And he..." He suddenly noticed a familiar notch in one of the prints and sucked in a sharp breath, startled hazel gaze flying to Vin's face. "Peso!"
Vin swallowed and nodded, then bowed his head and stared at the hoof print he still brushed with his fingertips. "Reckon so," he breathed.
JD reached out instinctively and laid a hand on Tanner's shoulder. "He ain't far, Vin," he said firmly. "And we know he's all right." He smiled reassuringly. "All we gotta do is go get him."
Vin exhaled softly and looked up into those young, bright eyes, comforted by the certainty he saw in them. He'd long ago lost his faith that things would always - hell, even sometimes - work out for the best, for the right, but this boy, with his ridiculous bowler hat, town suit and cocky grin, was doing his damnedest to bring it back.
Lord, Lord, how'd he ever hook up with friends like these?
"Thanks, kid," he said softly, a slight smile touching his lips and lighting his eyes. "Reckon we'd best git after 'em, then."
JD flashed a huge, bright grin, not certain what he'd done to earn the tracker's thanks, but glad he'd been able to help nonetheless. Then, as Vin shifted slightly and braced himself to stand, JD gripped his arm and assisted him to his feet, filling with pride and warmth as he earned another smile.
Watching from his place at Chris's side, Buck chuckled and shook his head. "That boy's gonna bust his buttons if he keeps swellin' up like that."
"Got a right to," Chris said softly. "Whatever he said ta Vin, it helped. And Vin ain't always easy ta help."
Buck glanced at his old friend, still smiling. "I know the type."
Green eyes narrowed. "You talk too much, Buck," he growled.
"Yep," the big man agreed, slapping Chris on the back, "and ever' word's a gem!" When Larabee had to chuckle, Buck's grin widened. "Best watch that, ol' pard," he warned. "You're startin' ta sound almost human."
Chris tried to glare, but couldn't quite make it work. Not when his mouth insisted on smiling. "One'a these days, Buck..."
"Yeah, I know. One'a these days you're gonna shoot me, Hell," he waved a hand, "one'a these days we're all gonna shoot each other. But, until then," deep blue eyes gleamed with unfailing good humor, "let's mount up. We gotta get that boy's one-peso horse back before he pines himself ta death. And before you worry yourself ta death over him."
Chris scowled deeply. "I ain't worryin'."
Buck snorted as he swung himself up into the saddle. "Yeah, and I ain't charmin'," he scoffed. "C'mon, old man," he said with a wicked grin, "let's show these young'uns how it's done!"
+ + + + + + +
In the space between one heartbeat and the next, the blaze- faced gelding went from dirty, beaten-up, worn-down captive to the outraged horse from hell. He'd stood silent and still - too still, had anyone there known him - while Milt tacked him, had done no more than twitch one ear when Milt had set a foot in the stirrup. But as soon as Milt's butt touched the saddle, Peso exploded, launching himself straight up into the air and then coming down hard on all four feet.
A harsh, wordless cry escaped Milt as the impact of that landing jarred him from tailbone to skull, sent pain shooting along his compressing spine and drove the air from his lungs. But he had no time to recover, for as soon as he hit the ground, the gelding went stiff-legged and hopped wildly over the ground, head down, back arched, and every muscle working in concert to get the hated rider off his back.
Milt couldn't see, couldn't breathe, couldn't think. Black, white and red spots danced before his eyes, and he felt as if he'd been caught up in a roaring tornado. The damn horse was never still for a moment, seemed able to turn himself in every direction at once, was hopping, bucking and spinning like a demented whirlwind. Milt was no longer trying to ride him, was simply trying to hang on, and when the gelding put his head down and flung his hindquarters up, the dazed man went sailing.
Tarber sighed and shook his head as Milt landed hard against an outcropping of rocks and lay still. "Next!" he shouted.
The men went silent and stared at each other, wide-eyed and open- mouthed at the display they'd just witnessed. Then all eyes turned back to the gelding. He was breathing hard and a sheen of sweat glistened over his dirty coat, but his head was up and he was blowing sharply and pawing the earth, his dark eyes hard and bright.
Oh, no, he wasn't beaten by a long shot!
"I'll make it thirty!" Roy shouted into the silence. "Thirty dollars in gold to the man who can ride that beast! C'mon, boys, y'ain't gonna let no goddamn horse git the best'a y'all, are ya?"
Deke Evans licked his lips, tugged at his gunbelt, and stepped into the open space. "Reckon I c'd give it a whirl," he said in a tight voice, feeling a chill ripple through him as those black, hellfire-flashing eyes settled upon him. "Ain't no horse ever beat me."
Yet, he was sorely tempted to add.
He licked his lips again and started slowly toward the horse, shuddering as the big head lowered and the black ears went back.
+ + + + + + +
Vin hunkered down behind the rocks and swept his spyglass slowly over the narrow opening to Verde Canyon. The sun was directly overhead now, and he was looking for the flashes of light against rifle barrels. He searched every crevice he could find, paying particular attention to the spots he would have chosen had he been the one on guard, and could not help feeling confused.
Where the hell were they?
Laying beside him, Chris studied the tracker's profile, saw his brows and the corners of his mouth draw down in a deep frown, and felt a niggle of worry. Something was bothering Tanner, and few things ever bothered the man. His calm acceptance of even the worst circumstances often infuriated the more volatile gunfighter.
"I'll be goddamned," Vin breathed slowly, sounding out each syllable. "I'll jist be goddamned!"
Chris clenched teeth and fists. "Well?" he demanded harshly.
Vin was utterly unfazed by Larabee's impatience. "If it was you in charge," he drawled, "where would ya put me?"
Chris's nails were digging into his palms. "I am in charge," he gritted, "and I'd prob'ly put you in the deepest, blackest hole I could find!"
Vin arched a brow and smiled slightly, still peering through his glass. "Settle down, Larabee," he urged. "Hell, I kin hear that vein'a yers throbbin'." He lowered the glass and turned to the older, scowling man. "I wanta know. If it was you, where would ya put me?"
Chris exhaled sharply and stared up at the cliffs on either side of the canyon. He released his anger and focused his considerable attention on the rocks, studying them carefully.
"Up there," he finally answered, pointing toward a niche high up and barely big enough to conceal a man, yet offering what had to be the best view of the trail coming in. "And over there, on the other side. Two men up there could damn near hold off an army with precious little risk ta themselves."
Tanner smiled. "Purty good fer a gunfighter," he complimented. "Yep, I'd pick them spots ta nest in, too."
Chris waited for more, but received only silence. "All right, goddamn it," he growled, "how many of 'em are we facin'?"
Vin raised his glass, swept it slowly over the rockface and shrugged. "None."
Chris blinked, certain he'd heard wrong. "Nine?"
Vin exhaled sharply and turned again to face him. "Clean yer damn ears once in a while! I said `none,' not `nine.' Goddamn, deaf-as-a-post, sonuvabitchin'..."
"Shut up, Tanner. Whatta ya mean, `none'?"
Vin regarded him through guileless blue eyes. "'M I s'posed ta shut up 'r answer ya?"
Chris clenched his jaws so tightly his back teeth hurt and dug his fingernails into the rock before him. "Five hundred dollars," he ground out, green eyes boring into the slightly smiling young man beside him. "I could end all this aggravation right now and get five hundred dollars for my trouble."
Vin nodded. "Reckon ya could. Ya might could almost make that shack'a yers livable, too, with all that money."
"Cabin," Chris corrected archly. "I don't live in no goddamn shack!"
Tanner shrugged and sighed. "Whatever ya say, Chris. But I seen shacks, 'n I seen cabins. 'N I gotta say, yers is definitely a shack."
Chris closed his eyes tightly and rubbed a hand hard against his forehead. "Tell... me... what... `none'... means!" he snarled.
Vin shook his head slowly at his friend. "Must be hell gittin' old," he mused. "`None' means `none,'" he explained slowly, as if talking to a backward child. "As in, `there ain't anybody up there.' Y'know, none."
Chris dropped his hand, opened his eyes and stared at the tracker in disbelief. "You tellin' me there ain't any guards at all?" he asked sharply.
Vin frowned slightly and considered his words, chewing on his lip as he thought. Long moments passed, then he finally nodded. "Yep."
"I swear ta God, Tanner," Chris growled, "one'a these days I'm gonna kill you."
"Why?" Vin asked, confused. "I wasn't in charge'a postin' no guards. Figgered them outlaws woulda done it theirselves. Hell, they's the ones stealin' horses."
Chris opened his mouth, but could form no words. Instead, he merely slid back from their position, dropped down to the trail below, and stalked over to the others.
They all saw him coming, saw the stormclouds darkening his face, the convulsive clenching and unclenching of his hands, and recognized the signs immediately.
"Well," Ezra drawled with a slight smile, returning the stopper to his canteen, "I see Mr. Larabee and Mr. Tanner have engaged in yet another of their always charming conversations."
"It's amazin'," Buck mused. "I never seen two men who can go from peas in a pod to burrs up each other's butts as fast as them two can. Gives me a headache sometimes just watchin'."
"Then do what I do," Nathan sighed. "Don't watch. Jus' cover ya eyes 'n wait fo' the fur ta stop flyin'."
Josiah studied the advancing Larabee carefully. "Can't see any new bruises, though," he said. "At least they ain't hittin' each other yet."
"Good," Nathan grunted. "Vin ain't got no place lef' ta bruise."
"But where is Vin?" JD asked worriedly.
Buck crossed his arms against his chest and leaned back against a large boulder. "Didn't hear any gunshots, either. And that penknife of Chris's ain't big enough ta do any real damage." He nodded, satisfied. "Likely he'll be along." As he spoke, the familiar figure ghosted down the trail, making no sound and raising no dust. "See? There he is, all in one piece. Howdy, boys!" he greeted.
Chris glared at them, but Vin smiled and nodded.
"What's with him?" Buck asked, jerking a thumb at the glowering gunfighter.
Vin hitched his thumbs into his gunbelt and grinned crookedly. "Aw, hell, he's jist pissed 'cause them assholes didn't post no guards." He shot a laughing glance at Chris. "Reckon he takes it as an insult, thinks he's losin' his touch at scarin' miscre'nts."
"Mis-cre-ants," Ezra corrected primly.
"Yeah, them," Vin agreed. "Anyways, there ain't no guards watchin' the canyon openin'. Seems we kin jist go on in."
"Doesn't make any sense," Chris finally said, irritation at Vin given way to thoughtfulness.
"Hell, Chris, none of this makes any sense!" Buck said sharply. "First, they been goin' outta their way fer weeks t' avoid us, them two of 'em come right inta town and steal Vin's horse. They knew it was his horse, they knew he's one of us, and still they stole his horse. And, no offense, pard," he added with an apologetic glance at Vin, "they stole Peso. Left ever' other horse in that stable alone, and stole Peso. Even after he fought 'em tooth and claw-"
"He ain't got claws," Vin put in softly, a slight edge in his voice.
Buck sighed heavily. "It's just a sayin', son. But, all right, after he fought 'em tooth and hoof, they still stole him. Then, when by all rights they shoulda just high-tailed it ta Mexico, they come and hole up here." He swept his gaze over his friends, his own eyes filled with puzzlement. "Any'a this make any sense ta any'a y'all?"
"Yeah," Vin said in a low growl, blue eyes hard. "Means they're stupid, 'n now it's gonna git 'em kilt."
Chris turned to the tracker and fixed a firm, compelling gaze upon him. "You listen to me," he ordered softly. "We're not goin' in there shootin', you hear me? We got no idea how many of 'em there are or how well they're armed. We're gonna take it slow. Just because they're stupid doesn't mean we have ta be. So you just settle down."
Vin glared hard at the older man, his lean frame taut with anger. "They got Peso-"
"And we'll get him back." Chris smiled thinly. "And then we'll make 'em pay for takin' him."
+ + + + + + +
Tarber couldn't believe it. Milt Jacobs was dead, his head busted open on them rocks. Deke Evans had broken ribs and a broken leg. And now Frank Haley was nursin' a dislocated shoulder. And all because'a that goddamn horse.
He stared hatefully at the gelding, his wide mouth curling into an ugly sneer. The animal's sides were heaving and lathered with sweat, and blood welled from gashes dug by three pairs of spurs. But still, still defiance shone in those furious eyes.
And Roy Tarber hated defiance, especially from a horse.
"One hundred dollars!" he shouted hoarsely as two men helped Haley over to one side and prepared to pull his shoulder back into place. "One hundred dollars in gold! C'mon, boys," he urged, "he's jist a horse! How much more fight can he have left in him?"
The men talked excitedly among themselves, their blood- and sporting- lust now aroused. Money was changing hands rapidly as bets were lost and won, and all thoughts of Larabee and his men had long since vanished amid the gambling frenzy. That black devil-horse was now the only enemy they recognized.
"A hunnerd, huh, boss?" Burt McAllister pushed through the knot of grinning, chattering men and stepped into the open, smiling wolfishly as he stared at Peso. "Ain't never yet seen the horse that couldn't be broke 'n rode. 'N this'n ain't no differ'nt." He nodded and started toward the wary animal, spurs jangling in the sudden quiet. "Say yer prayers, brute," he warned coldly. "It's either me 'r you, 'n I'm here ta tell ya it's gonna be me."
Once again, Peso stood still, head down and eyes hard, as the foot settled into the stirrup. A deep, rolling snort escaped him as the man hauled himself into the saddle, but, for the moment, he did nothing, as if trying to decide whether he truly had the strength to go on fighting.
The moment passed, however, as rough hands jerked back hard on the reins and spurs raked cruelly across his flanks. Now as desperate as he was furious, Peso launched himself into action, leaping, spinning, bucking, slewing, trying frantically to fling the hated rider from his back. Pain and terror only added to his frenzy, lent a new violence to his actions.
And as he was once again forced to fight for his freedom, as spurs punished him for he knew not what, he drew in a lungful of air and loosed a series of deep, guttural bawls of sheer animal rage.
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