Josiah Sanchez strode rapidly across the dusty street as he spied Judge Travis leave the telegraph office.
"Any word from Chris, Judge?" he asked anxiously.
"No Josiah, nothing yet," the judge replied wearily.
"It's been two days since that telegram, Judge."
"I know, Josiah, I know," Travis sighed.
"We're riding out at first light, Judge, if we don't hear anything the rest of today."
The Judge nodded his agreement. "I'm going over to see my daughter-in-law. I let word at the telegraph office to find me if anything comes over the wire. I'll keep you informed."
"I'm gonna tell the others Judge, I'll either be at the church or saloon if you need me." Out of habit, he raised his eyes skyward as he walked away, scanning the expanse, looking for crows.
"Okay boys, this is it. No funny stuff!" Slim Jim barked to his captives as the wagon rolled to a stop.
"Zeb, get 'em outta there and tie 'em up. Tanner'll ride with me, Larabee can ride with you."
"Vin, you see a way outta this, you go for it," Chris whispered urgently before Zeb reached them in the wagon.
"I'll go for it, cowboy, but we'll both be ridin' out. Told ya I ain't leavin' ya!" Vin hissed back, just before the door swung open.
For a split second Vin actually considered rushing Zeb and going for his gun. Then his eagle eyes saw Murphy and Will with their guns trained on Chris, who was hunched over, right behind him. Too many of 'em now Tanner, he consoled himself. They gotta split up soon and then ya can make your move. He gingerly jumped out and immediately turned to help Chris down.
"Get away from him!" Murphy yelled, knocking Vin's hands away with his rifle. "Get over here," he said, yanking Vin away from Chris. He tied Vin's hands then forced him on to Slim Jim's mount, quickly tying his bound hands to the saddlehorn.
Zeb did the same thing to Chris, jerking his shoulder cruelly as he prepared to tie his hands. An anguished cry worked its way past Chris's tightly clenched jaw as the white hot pain burst in his bullet wound.
"Chris! Chris!" Vin cried, hearing Chris's distress. He struggled frantically in the saddle, futiley pulling at his bound hands, trying to turn to see his friend.
"I'm okay Vin," Chris replied tightly. "Just settle down."
"That's good advice he's givin' ya boy," Slim Jim laughed, mounting up behind Vin.
The younger man shuddered with revulsion as the outlaw patted him on the shoulder.
"Now you just do what you're told, boy. Everythin' goes off with out a hitch, we'll even let you and your friend go. Eventually, that is," he said with a harsh chuckle. "Might keep ya around for a few more jobs first, though."
Vin held his tongue, inwardly seething. I'm gonna kill ya, you bastard! he thought over and over to himself, as he thought about Chris, bullet hole in his arm, being bounced and jostled in the saddle on this ride into hell. And he remembered the innocent people Slim Jim and this gang had killed. He would get Chris out of this nightmare and make Slim Jim and his followers pay for their crimes if it was the last thing he ever did. He willed himself to ignore the pain radiating from his abused ribs, jarred with each step the horse took. He refused to let himself feel the pounding in his head and the throbbing emanating from his bruised, beaten face, concentrating on staying alert and staying alive. For Chris, for the innocent people of Winslow. For all those who had died at Slim Jim's and his gang's bloody thirsty hands.
"Okay boys, take it slow. Gotta give Martin enough time to get settled in at the bank," Slim Jim commanded.
Half an hour later, they rode into town. Slim Jim and Zeb cut their prisoners bonds and everyone dismounted in front of the bank. They swarmed in.
"Stay with me Tanner!" Slim Jim ordered, keeping a tight hold on Vin's arm, gun pressed into his side. "Remember, Zeb's got a gun on Larabee. My signal, he's a dead man."
It was near closing time and the bank was nearly deserted. There was one customer, a young woman, who was hustled into the bank manager's office at gunpoint, along with the teller.
"Afternoon gentlemen," Slim Jim greeted the bank manager and Sheriff Martin as they broke into the office.
"What's the meaning of this!" the bank manager demanded, spying the guns held on his customer and employee.
"Need a loan from y'all. Permanent like," Slim Jim drawled.
"You're out of your mind!" the manager screamed, jumping out of his chair. "You aren't getting my money!"
Slim Jim whirled and shot the teller right between the eyes. The man fell to the floor, dead.
"Yeah, I'm one crazy mother f**ker, Mr. Bank Manager!" Slim Jim shouted gleefully. "So if ya don't wanna join your teller here, you better do like I say."
"Y-yes sir, whatever you say," the now cowed manager replied.
"Good, thought you'd come around to see things my way." He jerked a shocked Vin toward the safe then pointed at the bank manager. "Open the safe and help him load the money."
Vin looked at Slim Jim with unbridled fury. "You didn't have to shoot him! He didn't do nothin' to ya!"
"Shut up Tanner and do what I said or Larabee gets it!" Slim Jim warned. He nodded at Murph as Vin continued to hesitate. The outlaw shoved Chris to his knees and pointed his pistol at the prone man's head, cocking it.
"No!" Vin screamed. "No!" Don't! I'll do it!" He grabbed the sack and stood next to the manager as he worked to open the safe, his eyes frantically darting back to Chris, still being held at gunpoint on the floor. The safe finally clicked and the manager pulled the handle, revealing several large stacks of bills.
"Okay you two, load 'em up!" Slim Jim barked.
Vin and the manager hurried to comply. Sacks filled, they turned to face Slim Jim.
"You two done good, now you," he said, gesturing to the bank manager, set 'em outside the door then get back in here," the outlaw ordered.
The manager did as ordered and set the money bags outside the office door. He turned to walk back in, when Slim Jim shot him squarely in the chest.
The woman screamed and tried to run. Murph raised his gun to shoot her, and Vin, watching the scene unfold in horror, leapt in front of the woman, knocking her aside. He took the bullet in his upper arm and crashed to the floor, stunned. The woman scrambled to her feet, going for the door once again. Zeb caught her in the back with a bullet and she collapsed. Chris struggled to get up from his prone position, but Zeb cracked him in the head with his pistol, still warm from shooting the woman. He fell heavily back to the floor, unconscious from the vicious blow. Vin dazedly tried to stand, but Murph gave him a swift kick to the ribs, sending him into oblivion.
"Nice goin' fellas," Slim Jim praised, surveying the room.
"Boss, we gotta go," Will said running into the room. "It's startin' to get busy out there."
"Okay, let's get goin'. Martin, where ya want it, left or right?"
"Left, I'm right handed."
Slim Jim shot Martin in the left arm, then planted a gun by Chris and Vin's unconscious forms. We're outta here, Martin. Meet us at the hiding place when ya can. How long ya think it'll be?"
"Day or two I figure," Martin replied, sprawling out on the ground, gun in hand. "Look convincing enough?"
"Yep, ya look like a real hero. If I didn't know any better, I'd figure ya for an upstandin' lawman, wandered into a bank robbery. Hell, they'll prob'ly give ya a medal, capturing these two crooks that killed these poor folks."
Slim Jim laughed harshly, grabbed the remaining bag of money and followed the rest of his gang out of the bank.
"Get up you bastard!"
The harsh words had barely registered in Vin's scrambled brain when he was hauled to his feet, arms jerked forward and handcuffs slapped on his wrists. He cried out before he could stop himself as the movement jolted his injured arm, sending a blinding pain down its length. Dark spots swarmed in front of his eyes and he swayed against the man holding him.
"Get off me!" Martin barked out, shoving Vin away from him. The tracker landed back on the floor in a heap. He struggled to open his eyes, hearing a familiar voice next to him, calling to him softly.
"Chris!" he shouted breathlessly as he caught sight of his wounded friend laying next to him on the floor of the bank office. Blood still seeped from his right temple, mixing with the drying stream of the crimson fluid that had already run down the right side of his face, spilling onto his black shirt. Vin reached for his friend, only to remember the handcuffs. He looked worriedly at Chris, clenching his cuffed hands in frustration at his inability to help his friend.
"What's goin' on here?" he asked, enraged, working his way onto his hands and knees to regard his captors.
"Well, boy, what's goin' on is, your thievin' and murderin' ways have come to an end!" a man wearing an angry expression crowed. "Sheriff Martin here caught you and your friend there red-handed. Killin' Mr. Wainscot and Matt Helmsley outright. Shooting Miz Barnes in the back. Hangin's too good for the likes of you."
Vin stared at the man in shock. "What the hell you talkin' about? Sheriff Martin here was part of the gang. My friend and I were taken prisoner and they made us help 'em rob the bank."
"Sure you were, you lying bastard!" the man said angrily, striding over to Vin and backhanding him sharply. "Just shut that big mouth a yours! I don't wanna hear another word!"
Vin was about to retort when he felt a shaky hand on his shoulder. "Best listen to him Vin," Chris said hoarsely. "You're only makin' him mad. We'll get it settled, don't worry. Just keep your mouth shut for a minute. I gotta think."
"But Chris . . ." Vin began to protest, the words dying on his lips as Chris suddenly grimaced. "Okay, Chris, I'll keep quiet for now," Vin whispered back, concern for his friend now becoming foremost in his mind. "You wanna try to sit up?"
"Yeah, could ya help me?"
"Back off Tanner," Martin ordered. "Mr. Jones here and I'll take care of your friend."
"He's hurt, needs that wound looked to," Vin said stubbornly.
"I said back off!" Martin repeated, shoving Vin away. He kept his gun on Vin while Jones dragged Chris to his feet and handcuffed him.
"Okay, Sheriff, let's get these two dirt bags over to the jail," Jones said tersely.
Martin grinned and winked at Vin, his back to the townsman. "You heard him, on your feet," he ordered, grabbing Vin by the arm and pulling him up cruelly.
"Wonder if my bullet's still inside ya, Tanner," Martin hissed in Vin's ear as the younger man fought to stay conscious. "Guess it won't matter none, will it? You'll be dead soon enough. I'm gonna make sure they hang you and Larabee."
Before Vin could reply he was thrust outside the building, into the blinding sun, followed closely by Jones and Chris. A jeering cluster of townspeople stood outside the bank, following the small procession, shouting and taunting the two men as they were prodded toward the jail. The heavy wooden door closed and still their cries for justice carried into the structure.
"How'd you boys like the welcomin' committee?" Martin taunted. He led Vin into one cell and uncuffed his hands. Jones pulled Chris into another and did the same.
"Don't get too comfortable boys," he continued. "We're gonna get some of those friendly townsfolk to help us question ya." He turned to Jones. "Let's get a few of your friends, huh?"
"Think they'll be alright without one of us watchin' 'em?"
"Yeah, they ain't goin' no where. C'mon," Martin stated.
"Chris, I think we're in for it real bad," Vin said softly.
"It's not lookin' too good Vin," Chris agreed quietly. "We gotta try and talk to Jones without Martin around. That bastard sure has it in for us."
"Think I'd rather be in Tascosa right now, takin' my chances," Vin tried to joke. He gave a short chuckle, which turned into a moan as his wounded arm pulled and his still sore ribs protested the sudden movement.
"How's the arm, Vin?" Chris asked worriedly.
"Think the bullet went through and it stopped bleeding. I've had worse, Chris, don't you worry 'bout it none. How 'bout you?"
"Gotta headache the size of Texas," the older man replied bitterly. "Gang's got some nice moves with pistols, that's for sure. Can't wait to get my hands on 'em, gettin' tired of bein' used as target practice by 'em," he finished grimly.
The two stopped talking as the door to the jail slammed open. Vin heart sank as Martin and Jones walked in with three large men, all headed toward their cells. 'This definitely ain't gonna be good,' he thought nervously, looking at Chris. The gunman started at the five men calmly, almost daring them to move on him.
"Well now ain't this sweet, two of ya sittin' here so peaceful like," Martin sneered. "While two men are dead and some poor woman's fightin' for her life." He crossed his arms over his puffed out chest as he regarded the two prisoners. "Whatta ya boys have to say for yerselves?"
Chris and Vin stayed silent, enraging Martin and the other men. The townspeople stepped forward, but Martin held up a restraining hand.
"Hold on a minute fellas," he cautioned. "We gotta do this the right way, don't want 'em to escape."
"Which one of you are Winslow's sheriff?" Chris asked loudly.
"Ain't got no Sheriff anymore," Jones replied angrily. "Got killed a few weeks back and Sheriff Martin here thinks it was your gang what'd done it! So don't play games with us!"
"We ain't in the gang, I told ya that!" Vin shouted to the man. "Martin's part of it. We didn't shoot nobody, it was him and the fellas that got away!"
"Oh that's rich, Tanner," Martin said with a tight smile. "I'm part of a gang that robs bank. Case you didn't notice, I already got a job. I'm a sheriff."
"A crooked one at that," Chris stated flatly.
"I'm gonna ignore that, Slim Jim," Martin replied. He grinned openly at Chris's blatant confusion. "Yep, I know who ya are. Boys, this here is Slim Jim Watkins, one of the deadly men alive and leader of the gangs that robbed your all's bank and killed them nice folks. And his accomplice here is Vin Tanner. Know him 'cause he robbed the bank in my town and killed the bank manager there, too. I was in Four Corners for his trial, saw him get loaded in the prison wagon. He was sentenced to 35 years at Yuma, and Slim Jim was in that wagon, headed there, too."
"He's lyin'!" Vin shouted. "We're the law in Four Corners. I'm Vin Tanner, but that's Chris Larabee. He ain't Slim Jim Watkins, he got away with the others!"
"He sure looks like a Slim Jim," one of the men replied, taking in Chris's lean torso. His face now white with rage, he walked nearer to Vin's cell to confront him. "And why would a Sheriff lie? Tell me that! You're just tryin' to get outta this. Well, ya ain't! I knew Matt Helsmley for ten years and he was one 'a my best friends. You two are gonna pay!"
"They'll pay all right, Scott," Jones said, laying a comforting hand on the man's shoulder. "Ain't that right, Sheriff Martin?"
"You got it son," he replied and moved to take charge of the situation. "Okay, need one of you boys to stand guard, case anybody from outside decides to come in and interfere, and in case Tanner or Watkins gets away. Rest of you come with me," he said, smiling ferally at Vin as he moved to unlock his cell door.
Vin backed into the corner of his cell as the four men descended on him. Chris screamed desperately from his cell as he watched, horrified as Jones and Scott held Vin pinned against the bars on the far side of the cell.
"Now, I'm gonna ask ya a few questions, Tanner. It'd be in your best interest to answer me truthfully. We don't cotton to liars 'round here," Martin said.
"That's a laugh," Vin sneered back. "You're the biggest liar I ever seen."
"Michael," Martin nodded at the huge townsman standing to his side. "Teach Tanner here some manners."
The man slammed his meaty fist into Vin's abdomen. Vin gasped and tried to curl forward, but the two men restraining him held him tightly in place.
"Ain't nice to call a lawman a liar," Michael said, stepping back to Martin's side.
"Okay, we'll try again, Tanner," Martin said. "Where's the money?"
"Don't know, why don't you tell us? Y'all robbed the bank, not me and Chris," Vin retorted.
Martin nodded at Michael again. The man stepped forward and pummeled Vin in the stomach again, twice.
"Leave him alone!" Chris screamed as the blows began, tightening his hands on the bars, vainly trying to pull them apart. "He doesn't know anything! He's already hurt!" He rattled the metal, in frustration, unable to keep the men from beating Vin.
"Hhmm, we'll try a diff'rent question, Tanner, since ya seem to have problems rememberin' where that money is. Okay, where's the rest of the gang hidin' out?" Martin didn't think Vin knew where their hideout was, but he didn't want to take any chances since things were not going exactly as planned. He had been furious to find out that the woman was still alive, but he was safe for now, with the woman unconscious, and therefore, unable to refute his story. But right now he needed to find out how much Tanner and Larabee knew before he left to join the rest of his gang.
"What's that Tanner?" Martin baited, as Vin tried to spit at him. "Didn't quite hear ya?"
"Go to hell!" Vin snapped.
Michael stepped forward without needing to be asked. He landed a vicious punch to Vin's face, then to his stomach once again. Vin's head lolled forward, and he remained standing only because he was held up.
"Let him go boys," Martin ordered.
Jones and Scott let go of Vin and he sagged to the floor. Chris strained against the bars anxiously.
"Let me help him!" he pleaded desperately to the men.
Martin just laughed. "Ain't done with him yet, boy!" He spun and kicked Vin in the ribs. The former bounty hunter moaned feebly and tried to roll into a ball to protect his already injured side. Martin toed him over, onto his back. Vin laid there, waiting for Martin to make his move. When the sheriff brought his foot down to kick him once more, Vin lunged for the boot, yanking the man off his feet. He flew at Martin throat, closing his hands tightly against his windpipe.
"Tell 'em the truth!" he hoarsely ordered the corrupt lawman.
"Don't know what you're talkin' 'bout boy!" Martin choked out.
Michael and Scott surged forward to pull Vin off Martin. Scott helped the sheriff to stand.
"Thanks boys," Martin said, shakily. He turned to Vin, panting on his hands and knees on the floor. "Had enough of ya Tanner. You're gonna pay for that." He grabbed Vin by the front of his shirt, hauling him to his feet, then backhanded him across the face. Vin fell back against the bars, bouncing back toward the crooked lawman.
"Back for more, huh?" Martin taunted, slapping him again. Vin went down hard, collapsing at Martin's feet. Martin's raised a heavy boot, slamming it down on Vin's left hand. Bones cracked audibly as Vin screamed. Martin smiled and landed a solid kick to Vin's ribs, then backed away.
"Think that's enough questionin' for now, huh boys?"
The four men looked at Martin and nodded as one. They left Vin's cell, following Martin's lead.
"Got anythin' to say for yourself, Slim Jim?" Martin baited.
"You're a dead man," Chris said stonily. The townsmen backed away from Chris's icy stare, but Martin held his ground.
"Think ya got that wrong, Watkins. You and your friend are the dead men. C'mon boys, let's get us a drink. I sure worked up a thirst," Martin said with an evil chuckle.
After the men had gone, Chris called to Vin gently.
"Vin? Vin? Can ya hear me?"
Chris held his breath, frantically straining to hear some response from his best friend. Finally, a small voice.
"Yeah, I hear ya," Vin said weakly.
"Vin, I can't get over to ya, but I wanna make sure you're all right. Can you come over here?"
"Don't know . . . hurts."
"I know it does, but just try, okay?" Chris pleaded.
Chris watched in anguish as Vin slowly got to his hands and knees and painfully started crawling toward him.
"That's it, not much farther," he encouraged the badly wounded man.
"Can't go no more," Vin said, his shaking arms starting to buckle under him.
"Vin! Vin! Please, just a little bit more!" Chris begged, fitting his lean arms through the bars to reach for his friend.
Vin forced himself forward and finally fell into Chris's arms, losing consciousness as he hit the bars. Chris hugged Vin's beaten body tightly to his, through the cold metal. He brushed the tangled hair away from Vin's bruised, bloodied face carefully, wishing he could do something to ease his pain, hating that he couldn't.
He whispered a vow to his friend in the darkness of the jail. "Nobody's gonna hurt you anymore Vin, I promise. And I'm gonna make Martin and the rest of his gang pay."
"So it was all a scam is what you're sayin'?" Buck asked Josiah, slightly confused.
"It was just that, Brother Buck," Josiah intoned. "Judge Travis filled me in on it a while ago. He said Brother Vin was offered the chance of a full pardon in the Eli Joe matter if he helped them."
"I knew he couldn't've done somethin' like that!" JD cried jubilantly.
"But I still don't get it," Buck persisted to Josiah. "How'd they fool that whole town? Those folks from Arriola seemed pretty riled up to me. I seen the bruises on JD and Vin after they attacked 'em. Those marks weren't fake."
"The good people of Arriola weren't in on the secret," Judge Travis announced as he joined the group.
"Remember my friend Judge Jackson there? His brother is the town doctor there and one of their cousins is the undertaker. They agreed to participate in the plan. Judge Jackson's son played along, too. You'll remember he was the bank manager," he added. "Vin acted out robbing the bank and shot Judge Jackson's son with blanks. The doctor pronounced him dead and the undertaker was called. Pretending to prepare the body, he slipped his nephew out of town for a nice long vacation. They buried a coffin full of rocks to fool everyone. Sound familiar?"
The men at the table nodded, with JD smiling at the memory of Chris, Vin and himself many months ago struggling to lower the rock-filled coffin into the ground outside Four Corners when they'd had to pretend Judge Travis had been killed.
"Worked again, huh Judge?" he asked.
"Most certainly, Mr. Dunne and Mr. Tanner played his part to perfection."
"They sure went to a lot of trouble to plan this thing," Buck stated with a low whistle.
"Had to," the judge responded flatly. "Convicts were escaping and taking innocent lives. And it was getting worse."
"What about the law in Arriola?" Josiah asked quietly.
"Sheriff Martin's suspected of being involved in all this somehow. He knew nothing of the plan."
"So Chris knew Vin was innocent the whole time?" Buck asked.
The judge nodded.
"Damn! Those boys sure put on a show!" Buck shouted in amazement. "They really had me goin'!"
"There's just one problem with the plan," Josiah warned. All eyes turned to him. "Judge?" he prompted.
"Mr. Larabee has not checked in for over two days and the prison wagon carrying Mr. Tanner has been captured by outlaws. The telegram I received from Mr. Larabee a few days ago said Slim Jim Watkins, who was in the wagon with Mr. Tanner, seemed to know the individuals who overtook the wagon. He believes them to be part of his gang," Judge Travis explained.
"I've heard 'a him!" Buck said. "He's a no-account killer and bank robber from Kansas! If Vin and Chris are mixed up with him they're in a heap 'a trouble Judge! We're ridin' after 'em!" He shot out of his chair and turned to walk out when Josiah caught his arm.
"Hold up, Buck. Listen to the judge."
"The wire was sent from Sunrise Springs a little over two days ago. The wagon was supposed to be headed to Yuma prison, so it may be best to check towns that are a day or two's ride from Sunrise Springs, going toward Yuma. Mr. Dunne, I'd like you to stay behind to help me guard the town." He looked at Josiah. "Check for messages in Sunrise Springs, we'll send word to you there if we hear from Mr. Tanner or Mr. Larabee."
"Let's ride," Buck said coldly. "Plenty of daylight left, no reason to wait for first light. Vin and Chris need us."
Josiah released Buck's arm and nodded in agreement. "We'll meet at the livery in 15 minutes."
Chris's eyes flew open as he heard the jail's heavy wooden door bang open. He had fallen asleep, sitting on the cold, hard floor of his cell, holding Vin in his arms through the bars. Ignoring the protests of his injured arm and stiffened body, he curled his arms more protectively around the seriously wounded man and glared over his shoulder at the intruder.
"You gonna question us some more?" Chris asked in a steely, sarcastic voice.
"No, Slim Jim, I ain't," Scott replied. "I'm just here to check on y'all. He need anything?" he asked, jerking his head toward Vin.
"Hell yes, he needs somethin'!" Chris growled. "He needs a doctor, since you and your friends decided to beat the shit outta him!"
Vin stirred in Chris's arms, the loud, sharp tones penetrating through the shroud of pain and unconsciousness enveloping him. A low moan escaped his lips as he began to move restlessly.
"Easy Vin," Chris soothed softly, silently cursing himself for getting riled enough to disturb his best friend's sleep. He shifted Vin slightly so he could free one hand, and began to stroke his hair gently, hoping to quiet the younger man's moans of pain.
"Chris?" Vin called weakly.
"Sshh Vin, it's okay, I'm right here. Go back to sleep."
Vin shivered, ignoring his request. "Where are we, Chris? What happened?" Vin opened his eyes and tried to look around, but one eye was nearly swollen shut from his earlier beating and Chris's body blocked his view from out the other one.
"We're in Winslow, remember?" Chris answered, silently hoping Vin actually wouldn't remember the vicious beating he had endured. He looked down when Vin didn't answer and was relieved to find he had dropped off to sleep again.
"He all right?"
Chris jumped slightly at the voice, having been so engrossed with comforting Vin that he had forgotten about Scott.
"No he ain't all right!" Chris snapped, but kept his voice low, so as not to wake Vin again. "You bastards broke his hand, he's been beat half to death and he's got a bullet hole in his arm. Prob'ly runnin' a fever, too. Feels that way."
Scott looked at Vin, something akin to remorse showing in his eyes for a quick moment. Then it was quickly replaced with a stern gaze. "Look Slim Jim, I'm sorry this happened to your friend, but y'all did bring this on yourselves, killin' folks, robbin' the bank, and all." He turned to leave the jail.
"Wait!" Chris called out desperately. "Wait!" He closed his eyes with relief as the man walked back to the cells. "My name ain't Slim Jim, it's Larabee, Chris Larabee. My friend and me are part of the law in a town called Four Corners."
The man shook his head slightly in disbelief.
"Please, please! You gotta believe me!" Chris said, urgently, his concern for Vin making him beg this stranger for help. "Send a wire to the town to check if you don't trust me. Send it to Judge Travis, or JD Dunne, the town's sheriff. They'll vouch for us! Please!"
"What's goin' on?" Martin's harsh voice bellowed as he entered the small building with Jones in tow.
"Just checkin' on the prisoners, Sheriff," Scott replied. He gave Chris one final look before he turned to the two new arrivals. "Tanner looks like he's in a bad way. Maybe the doc should come and take a look at him," he suggested.
"And interrupt him when he's tendin' to Miz Barnes? Nope, not for scum like this. Tanner'll live and if he don't," he paused, giving Chris a sneer, "one less hangin' for us to do, ain't that right boys?"
"Didn't know nothin' about hangin' 'em, Sheriff. We're gonna wait for the circuit judge to get here and try 'em first, aren't we?" Scott asked.
"Yeah, that's what I meant," Martin said hastily. "Meant after the judge tries 'em, then we'll hang 'em."
Jones looked at Vin and Chris doubtfully. "Maybe we should get the doc over here. Neither one of 'em looks too good."
"Go ahead, if you two do-gooders want," Martin said with annoyance. "Bring the doctor over here. But I hate to think of poor Miz Barnes. What if something happens to her while he's here, tendin' to this garbage?"
"I'll go fetch him," Scott said. Chris caught his eye one more time, silently pleading with him to send the telegram. Scott turned away and hurried out to bring back the doctor.
"Hang on Vin," Chris whispered to his sleeping friend. "Help's on the way."
Scott walked back into the jail a few minutes later, alone.
"Where's the doc?" Martin jeered. "Too busy for the likes of these two?"
"Said he can't leave Miz Barnes right now, but he'll be over soon as he can. Gave me some bandages and a few things for 'em right now, though, 'til he can get here," Scott answered.
Martin grabbed the supplies. "Well, they don't need 'em!" he shouted. "They can do without, serve 'em right to suffer. Ain't that right Slim Jim?"
Chris gave Martin a deadly look.
Martin grinned maliciously. "Maybe we need to question Tanner some more fellas? He's rested long enough. C'mon Tanner, wake up, we've got some more questions for ya!"
"No!" Chris yelled as he clutched Vin to his chest protectively, squeezing his arms through the bars farther. "You ain't touchin' him again! Leave him alone!"
"Yeah, Sheriff, I think he's had enough for now. He ain't even conscious," Jones said.
"But we gotta find out where that money is and where the gang's hidin' out," Martin persisted, continuing to give Chris his evil grin.
Chris slowly eased Vin out of his arms, laid him gently on the floor of his cell and stood up. He swayed against the bars briefly, his body stiff and legs asleep from sitting on the floor for so long, holding Vin. He forced himself to stand straight and face the three men.
"I know where the money is and where the gang hideout is. Vin don't know, it was me. I made him go along with the robbery."
"Hear that sheriff!" Jones said. "He confessed! We can get some other townsfolk and go bring the money back! Maybe we can even get a posse together and go after the robbers!"
"He's lyin' boys," Martin said flatly. "He'd do anything to save his friend. It was Tanner who planned it all, not Larabee."
"Did you just call him Larabee?" Scott asked suspiciously.
"Uh, yeah, guess I did," Martin said, cursing his slip. "That's another one of his aliases," he said quickly, hoping he had fooled the two townsmen. "We gonna question Tanner again?" he asked, hoping to change the subject.
"Don't see a reason to, Sheriff," Jones replied. "Watkins here confessed. Guess we just wait on the circuit judge. And meantime, maybe we better fix 'em up a little bit with the stuff from the doc."
"Bah!" Martin spat out. "You boys are gettin' soft on me! Go ahead and do your charity work, but I ain't stickin' around to watch!" He bolted out the door.
Chris saw his chance. He stepped forward, clutching the bars tightly in his hands. "Please! please! Send that telegram to Four Corners! Martin's part of the gang! He's tryin' to set us up!"
"What's he talkin' about?" Jones asked Scott in confusion.
"Man here says he's Chris Larabee and he and Tanner here are part of the law in a town called Four Corners. Wants me to send a telegram there to prove it."
"Well if Martin's part of the gang, why's he stickin' 'round here, then?" Jones asked. "Why didn't he ride away with the rest of 'em?"
"It's a long story," Chris said hurriedly. "Please send that telegram and please will you let me go to my friend? Let me help him?" he pleaded.
Jones and Scott walked away from the cells and talked quietly for several minutes. They walked back to Chris, staring at him for several long minutes, trying to decide whether he was telling the truth. Chris quickly turned in Vin's direction when his friend began to awaken, crouching down to reach out for him once more. As he held the injured man in his arms, Chris turned to look at them beseechingly "Please help us. My friend is badly hurt. I'll do anything you want." His voice broke and he lowered his head, unable to say more.
"Okay, we'll help ya," Scott said as Jones nodded in agreement. He grabbed the keys from their peg and unlocked the door to Chris's cell.
"Thank you," Chris responded gratefully. He set Vin down on the floor of his cell again carefully, pulled his hands free of the bars, stood up and walked out. Jones and Scott regarded him nervously, but Chris ignored them and went to stand in front of Vin's cell. "I ain't gonna try anything, just wanna get to my friend," Chris assured and waited quietly while Scott opened the lock. Chris shot into the cell, going right to Vin's side.
"Can one of you bring me those supplies from the doctor?" Chris asked.
Just then the door to the jail shot open once again. Two very angry men, one years older than the other, strode in, followed closely by a grieving older woman.
"They the ones that shot my Amy?" the oldest man asked Jones and Scott.
"Well, we thought so Mr. Barnes, but now we ain't . . ." Scott began to reply, but was cut off by the younger man's shouts.
"Whatta ya mean, ya ain't sure! Me and Amy were gettin' married next month, and now she's layin' there, shot up! She didn't do nothin' to deserve it! They're gonna pay!"
"And these men shot my Chester," the mature women stated quietly. She walked close to Scott and Jones, capturing them in her piercing gaze. "He would have been 55 today, it's his birthday. Now what am I going to do?" she asked sadly.
Chris watched the whole proceedings with sympathy. He was sorry for the pain these three people were so obviously feeling, but he had to help Vin. He was badly injured and needed the medical supplies.
"I'm sorry about your husband ma'am, and about the woman that got shot, but me and my friend here didn't do it," he said. "Sheriff Martin's part of the gang that did it and he's tryin' to frame us for it." He pressed on desperately as the faces stared back at him blankly. "Could I please have those supplies?"
Scott and Jones looked at one another, then stared back at Chris.
"No," they replied in unison. Scott stepped forward. "We ain't givin' 'em to ya. You and your friend deserve what ya got. And to think we almost were suckered by you!"
"No, wait!" Chris cried frantically. "I'm tellin' the truth! Please!"
The five people headed for the doors, looking at Chris and Vin with disgust.
"We ain't gonna sit here and listen to any more 'a your lies!" Jones spat out and slammed the jailhouse door behind him.
Chris slumped against the bars, banging his head against them lightly. "Dammit!" he shouted, enraged.
He straightened and shook at the bars in helpless desperation.
"Chris?" a weak voice sounded behind him.
"Right here Vin," he answered, hurrying to his side. He pushed back the damp hair from his friend's sweaty, fever-flushed face with a gentle hand.
"Thought we were gettin' outta here?" Vin said softly, licking his parched lips.
"We are Vin, don't you worry," he said reassuringly to the injured man.
"Thirsty," Vin mumbled.
Chris's eyes frantically swept over the small cell as he silently cursed the men who had left him without giving him the medical supplies. He spied a wash basin and pitcher resting on a small, rickety stand in the far corner and ran to it, relieved to find the pitcher filled with water, and a battered tin cup behind it. He carried the cup and pitcher over to the bed carefully, not wanting to spill one precious drop of the liquid.
"Okay Vin, here's some water for ya," he said breathlessly. "I'm gonna sit ya up a little so you can drink some."
Chris tried to be gentle, but Vin still gasped as he was eased up slightly from the mattress.
"Sorry Vin," Chris apologized sadly.
"It's okay Chris," Vin whispered back, matter-of-factly. "You didn't do nothin'. Everythin' just hurts, don't matter if I'm layin' down or sittin' up."
He felt the heat of fever rifling through Vin's slender body as he held the cup for him to drink. 'Damn!' he swore to himself softly as he looked at his friend's flushed, beaten face as Vin took a few small sips of water. Chris willed himself to concentrate on laying Vin back down onto the bed without causing him any more pain, refusing to allow himself to dwell on the rage he was feeling toward Sheriff Martin for doing this to Vin. There'll be time for that later, Larabee, he reminded himself silently. After ya've got Vin taken care of.
Chris knelt down next to Vin and untied the younger man's bandanna, dunked it in the lukewarm water then began to rub the cloth over Vin's sweaty face.
"Feels good Chris," Vin said weakly. "But don't waste the water on me like that. You ain't even had any to drink," he feebly admonished.
"Sshh, Vin, just close your eyes and rest. I'll have some in a minute," he hedged.
The gentle movements soothed Vin and he finally closed his eyes, falling asleep quickly. Chris sighed, glad that Vin was sleeping and out of misery for at least a little while. Now was the time he had dreaded. To deal with Vin's numerous injuries. He decided to tend the bullet wound first and reached for the water.
"Sorry Vin, this is gonna hurt," Chris apologized, even though he was sure his friend couldn't hear him. "No laudanum for you, thanks to our jailers," he said bitterly. He reached for Vin's arm, slowly tearing away the shirt from around the wound. He wet the tattered cloth and began to dab at the bullet hole, cleaning it out as best he could with the meager supplies. Vin stirred slightly and moaned, but didn't awaken. Chris poured more water on the cloth, and wrapped it around the injury. He knew the wound was infected but there was nothing more he could do about it. He drew in a shaky breath to steady himself, knowing Vin's hand needed to be set next. Chris gritted his teeth, clenching and unclenching his hands in anger and frustration, hating that he was having to hurt Vin like this in order to help him.
"Christ, no use puttin' it off," he said quietly, steeling himself for what he had to do. He lifted Vin's hand off the mattress, holding it lightly as he examined it. He was glad to find that none of the bones had broken through the skin and decided against trying to set the small bones himself. He ripped off his own shirt sleeves, the black cloth becoming a thick bandage to wrap the hand tightly in. He watched Vin's face carefully for any signs of distress as he worked. The younger man flinched a few times as Chris wound the cloth around the injury, but stayed asleep. He set the bandaged hand back down gently and moved to unbutton Vin's shirt when he was overcome with a dizzy spell. He fell to his knees and grabbed at the bed to try and steady himself, but couldn't stop himself from sinking slowly to the floor. He looked down at his hand in surprise, suddenly noticing the warmth flooding slowly down his arm. I'm bleedin' again, he thought to himself dully and looked further up his bare arm, as if noticing the bullet hole in his own arm for the first time. Oh yeah, I got shot, too. Few days before Vin, he remembered, feeling like he was in a dream. He tried to rise, but slumped further down, falling to the floor, as the blood loss, head injury and stress of the situation combined to weaken him. He closed his eyes as the room began to spin.
"Damn!" Buck cursed. "No word from the Judge. Where we gonna head next?"
"Winslow," Josiah stated flatly. "It's the next big town on the way to Yuma."
"But what if they ain't headed toward Yuma!" Buck shouted.
"Then we'll split up when we get there," Josiah rumbled. "They had that heavy prison wagon Buck," he explained patiently. "Can't see 'em not stayin' on the main road, it'd be too hard to drive in the rocks and brush."
"Man's got a point," Nathan agreed.
"Okay," Buck acquiesced. "Winslow it is. It's gettin' dark and we're wastin' time. Let's ride."
"Hold on Buck! We've pushed the horses about as far as they're gonna go. We're stoppin' here for the night," Josiah ordered.
"But Josiah . . ."
"Mr. Wilmington," Ezra broke in, saving Josiah from having to explain his reasoning to Buck yet again, "nightfall is upon us and it would not be fortuitous for us to be wandering around in the wilderness in the dark. Our mounts could sustain a serious injury and we would be not farther along in our search for Mr. Tanner and Mr. Larabee."
Buck narrowed his eyes as he deciphered Ezra's flowery speech.
"What the man's tryin' to say is, we wanna find 'em just as much as you do, Buck. But, we don't know what we're ridin' into. Better to do it in the daylight," Nathan explained.
"All right, Josiah, I'll let you have your way on this," Buck replied. "But we're ridin' out at first light," he cautioned.
"Amen to that brother," Josiah said, clapping a comforting hand on Buck's back. "We ride hard, we'll get there mid-morning Buck. We'll get to them in time."
"We just better, Josiah, we just better," Buck answered, stalking off toward the saloon.
Chris heard the harsh voice, then flinched as the gush of cold water hit him in the face. He came fully awake instantly, shivering at the contact of the water on his warm skin.
"Did ya like your visitors?" Martin sneered as he set down the now empty bucket. "Though ya'd like to meet the families of those poor people ya killed."
Chris ignored the crooked sheriff's comments, checking on Vin instead.
Martin leaned on the bars, bringing his face close. "Aw, ain't that sweet, Larabee, takin' care of your friend like that. What's 'a matter with Tanner? He feelin' a little under the weather?" he taunted.
Chris struck with the speed of a cobra, flying from Vin's bedside to the bars, reaching through them easily to capture Martin's neck in a vise-like grip.
"You're a sorry excuse for a lawman," he growled squeezing his fingers even tighter around the man's neck. Martin clawed at Chris desperate for air, but Chris held firm. "How does it feel, you worthless piece of shit!" Chris spat out in his ear, gratified as Martin's face began to turn purple.
"Let him go!"
Chris heard the click of a gun being cocked, but still held firmly to Martin.
"Back off!" Chris yelled. "I'm gonna strangle this bastard! Real slow."
"I said let him go, or I'll shoot Tanner!" Scott shouted, pointing the gun at Vin.
Scott's words slowly sank in and Chris released his hands, shaking from the adrenaline rush. Then he turned and walked back to Vin's side. I'm sorry Vin, I was so close. But I'll get that bastard that did this to ya, he silently assured the unconscious man.
Martin looked at Scott and Jones, who stood silently behind him.
"Thanks for the help, boys, was almost a goner," he said hoarsely, still rubbing his sore neck. "But you shouldn't be walkin' around town with guns, remember it's against the law here? I'll take 'em off your hands now."
"Sorry sheriff," Jones apologized. "But we wanted 'em while we came in. Thought ya might have needed help."
Martin confiscated the guns, then grabbed the keys to the cells. "Okay fellas, I'm gonna need ya to step inside," he ordered Scott and Jones, pointing to the empty cell next to Chris and Vin.
"W-what're ya talkin' about Sheriff?" Scott asked in surprise.
"Just get in!" Martin barked, waving his gun.
The two men complied.
"Thank you," Martin said, slamming the door. He stood in between the two cells and addressed the occupants.
"Well, my time here is drawin' to a close boys," Martin said, feigning regretfulness. "Seems like Miz Barnes may be wakin' us soon and I sure don't wanna be around when she spills the beans about what happened. Can't believe we didn't kill her at the bank. Rotten luck, eh?" he said, winking at the horrified Scott and Jones.
"Guess I better meet up with Slim Jim and the rest of the boys. We got some money to split up and spend. See y'all 'round sometime. It's been real fun," he cackled and walked out, leaving Jones and Scott shocked into silence.
Chris looked at the two men, then looked away in disgust.
"We're sorry we didn't believe you," Scott said mournfully. "Never would have thought a lawman would lie like that." He looked at Chris somberly. "What can we do to help now?"
Chris regarded the two men bitterly. "Say a prayer that Vin forgives you for holdin' him while your friend beat the crap outta him," Chris responded dryly. "'Cause he's the only one that can stop me from doin' it to both of you."
Both men gulped at Chris's harsh words, never doubting for a minute that the black-clad man meant every bit of it. Deciding to drop the subject, they watched in silence as Chris tended to Vin.
"Hey cowboy," Chris said, as Vin slowly opened his eyes. He wiped Vin's feverish face again with the cloth, trying to make his friend more comfortable the only way he could. "Drink some more water for me, okay?" Chris coaxed.
Vin shook his head slightly. "Tired," he whispered hoarsely.
"I know you are," Chris agreed. "Just drink a little bit, then you can go back to sleep."
He raised Vin slightly off the bed and forced a few sips of water into him. He tried to get Vin to drink more, but he felt the younger man go limp in his arms and realized he'd lost consciousness.
"Damn!" Chris cursed in helpless rage as he lowered Vin back to the mattress. He started to pace, running his hands through his short, blond hair. He looked around the tiny cell. The only window in the building was near the sheriff's desk, too far away for any of them to yell out of and be heard. Not that anyone would listen, he thought to himself ruefully. They'd just think it's me or Vin, bellyachin' about bein' in here.
He peered out across the room to the two men huddled miserably in the adjoining cell.
"When you think the doctor's comin' over here to check on us?" he asked suddenly.
"Don't know, Mr. Larabee," Scott replied. "He said he'd be over soon as Miz Barnes was stable."
"Oh, now it's Mr. Larabee, is it?" Chris said tartly. "Y'all sure weren't so courteous a few hours ago."
"Well we know ya ain't Slim Jim now," Jones said in response to the reprimand. "And we wanna make it up to you and your friend."
"Little late for that fellas," Chris spat out. He settled back down next to Vin and re-wet the cloth, wiping him down again. Chris could feel the intense heat radiating from Vin's fevered skin before he even touched him. And the water was getting low. There was no way Vin would be able to make it through another day without the doctor.
The light from the kerosene lamp Martin had left flickered on the sheriff's desk, illuminating the rolls of bandages and bottles of medicine standing next to it. All the things Vin needed, mocking him with their closeness. Near enough to be seen clearly, but just out of Chris's reach. He couldn't look at them anymore. Instead, he rested his forehead on the hard iron of the bed frame. He was so tired. And so thirsty. He hadn't had any of the water himself, wanting to save it all for Vin. He licked his dry, scabby lips, remembering the water Martin had flung on him. He'd managed to lick a few drops that had hit his face, but it wasn't enough. His eyes drooped with fatigue, but he fought to stay awake. Vin moaned in his sleep and he stroked his hot, sweaty brow, grinding his teeth in frustration that he couldn't do more to help ease his friend's suffering.
"No . . . stop . . . don't."
Chris jerked his head up off the mattress at the soft sounds. He blinked, looking at Vin dazedly, slowing realizing that he had fallen asleep and it was now morning. Sweat poured off Vin's lean body as he restlessly tossed around the bed. Chris held him gently, trying to quiet him as he cried out and fought against him in his delirium.
"I've got you Vin, it's all right," he soothed. "Just settle down now."
Vin quieted somewhat at the sound and touch of Chris. He opened his eyes and started at the older man, glassy-eyed.
Hi Vin," Chris smiled as he stroked the sweat soaked curls off his forehead. "You want some water?"
"No," Vin whispered weakly. "Chris can ya send Nathan in here? I'm really hurtin' Chris, I need somethin'. I tried to hold off, Chris, really I did, but I gotta have Nathan give me somethin' for it, okay?"
"Nathan ain't here Vin," Chris said quietly, his heart breaking as he looked into Vin's pain-filled blue eyes.
"Then go find him. Please Chris," Vin begged. His eyes closed and Chris thought he had fallen back asleep. But then Vin began thrashing around again. "I didn't mean it, I'm sorry, don't be mad," he pleaded desperately, now lost in some distant bad memory, delirious from the high fever raging through his body.
"I don't know where Nathan is Vin. I'd get him for ya if I did, I swear. I'm so sorry Vin," Chris choked out thickly, past the large lump growing in his throat. He took Vin's uninjured hand and stroked his hot face with the other
They both dropped off to sleep again, with Chris waking a few hours later to the sounds of loud voices entering the jail.
"Sheriff! Sheriff! Anybody here?" a big voice boomed out in the small space.
Chris had never heard a sweeter sound.
"Josiah!" he answered back. "We're in here! And bring Nathan, Vin's hurt bad!"