"Damn, Buck," Vin Tanner's face screwed up, "What the hell did ya eat fer lunch?" He grabbed his beer and backed away.
"Ham and cabbage," Buck Wilmington retorted defensively, "Sometimes cabbage don't agree with me."
"Well, would you mind taking your disagreement outside, preferably downwind," Ezra Standish suggested, seeking relief at a distant table, "Before all the color evaporates off my cards."
"Oh, now hold on a minute," Buck replied, only to be cut off.
"Landsakes, Buck," Nathan Jackson backed off, covering his nose and mouth, "Have a little mercy, huh?"
"As if you three just left a convent," Buck scowled, wincing as the gas pains enveloped him.
Vin and Nathan sought relief at the end of the bar, near the open doors. Chris Larabee sauntered in, nodded to Inez, who produced a bottle of whiskey and a glass. He placed his dark hat on the bar and ran his fingers through his short, blond hair. He pulled a cheroot from his pocket and stood next to Vin.
"I wouldn't do that, Chris," The tracker warned, "Yer likely to blow me clear back to Tascosa."
Chris paused, and eyed the room slowly. Ezra was in the furthest corner, Nathan practically out the door, with Vin on his heels. Only Buck remained at their usual table, wearing a veil of innocence. The man in black squinted and wrinkled his nose.
"Buck, you been eating cabbage again?"
"Aw, hell, Chris," The tall man declared, "It'd been so long, I forgot," He pained, clutching his abdomen.
"Nathan, you got anything to put him out of his misery?" Larabee asked the healer.
"I'll make it worth your while," Ezra crowed, "That is if I am not blinded in the meantime."
"Shut up Ezra," Buck hollered.
"Come on Buck," Nathan sighed, "I'll see what I can do."
Buck sheepishly made his way past Vin and Chris, who snagged his arm. The mustached-man looked contrite and the leader wanted to ensure that state.
"Buck, let this be a lesson," He saw the dark head nod painfully and released his arm.
"When's Josiah and the Kid due back?" Vin asked, wiping the foam from his upper lip.
"Sometime tomorrow, not before noon, I reckon," Chris replied, "That is if Josiah don't shoot him first."
Vin laughed, at the picture of the unlikely duo. Josiah could spend days in solitude, drenched in somber reflections. J.D. couldn't sit still for ten minutes and could beat the ear off a dead man.
They were in headed back from Yuma, after depositing a couple of prisoners. Vin made his way over to the batwing doors and eyed the horizon.
"Where you headed, Vin?" Larabee asked, sensing the younger man's imminent departure.
"Figured I check on Old Man Dixon," he replied, "He's been feelin' poorly and I ain't seen 'im in town."
"Might not be the best idea to stray so far," the blond suggested, sipping his whiskey.
"Why's that?" Vin turned, feeling the tension rising.
"Cutter Carson and his gang might still be around," Chris warned, with quiet caution.
"I'll keep an eye out," the ex-bounty hunter declared, as he stepped out onto the boardwalk.
He was checking his holster, heading for the livery, when an arm snagged him in mid-stride.
"I don't want you riding around out there on some mercy mission. Carson doesn't issue idle threats. He'll shoot you on site."
Vin didn't meet the green eyes, rather he stared with hostility at the gloved hand on his arm. Chris saw the fire in the blue eyes and hesitated, meeting them, before releasing the arm. Vin shrugged his shoulder and resumed his walk to the livery.
"Dammit, Vin, You're not going!"
"Excuse me?" Vin wheeled, staring defiantly, "Last time I checked, I's of age and you ain't my Pa." He glared, "Back off, been takin' care of m'self long before I squatted here."
"Jesus, you're stubborn," Chris shouted, keeping pace with the angry buckskinned-strides, "I'll go check on the old man. You keep an eye on things here."
"I ain't askin' yer permission," He teethed, saddling Diablo, his horse, "and I ain't wrapped in cotton, like fancy china."
"He's dangerous, Vin," Chris tried, mouth grim, "He damn near shot your fool head off two weeks ago. He's lyin' low out there, just waiting to pounce. You think he ain't been stewin' over the fact we killed two of his men, including his brother?"
"I don't recall ya givin' Josiah and J.D. this speech," He tightened the cinch strap, "When they left totin' Wells and Hinkson," Tanner noted of the two Carson gang members who were taken away.
"That's different," Chris glared.
"No it ain't," Vin interrupted, throwing himself in the saddle, "How come yer not trippin' behind that doe-eyed Kid," He noted of J.D.
"Josiah can look out for him, and he's not number one on Cutter's hit list, Vin, you are!" Chris seethed, grabbing the tan leg.
"Quit smotherin' me," Vin pulled away, "Ya had me practically hog-tied in this town fer over a week, or been glued to m'side. I can't breathe, Chris"
Chris swore a blue streak as the sharpshooter rode away. He had half a mind to follow him, but changed his mind. In the mood the younger man was in, he'd shoot him if he caught wind of him.
It's not always easy being best friend to the best tracker in the territory. Plus, Buck wasn't yet fully healed from being wounded in the shootout with the gang two weeks before. He couldn't leave the town short of men, especially with deadly killers on the loose. He slowly made his way back to the Saloon.
Ezra Standish shuffled the deck and observed Chris Larabee from across the room. He was a student of the human race, and Larabee fascinated him. A more complex man, he'd yet to encounter. He studied the body language. One hand gripping the whiskey bottle, the other resting on his gun. The tense shoulders, clenched jaw, and searing green-eyed stare meant one thing. He chuckled to himself, Chris Larabee never realized how transparent he could be, when it came to one, soft-spoken Texan.
"Has our elusive young tracker slipped the cozy confines of this charming town?" The Southerner offered, sliding the empty chair next to him out with his boot.
Chris saw the gesture, but declined, remaining at the end of the bar. He belted down one shot and poured another. He hated it when Standish wore that 'shit-eating-grin'. Damned gold tooth was giving him a headache. He scowled at the red-jacketed conman and grunted, returning to his drink. How the hell did Ezra always know? Damned no-good cheater.
"Shut up Ezra," He growled, only causing the grin to broaden.
Ezra had heard enough of the loud words in the street, before the two friends disappeared into the livery. He knew Cutter Carson was gunning for the Seven in general and Tanner specifically. Vin knew Cutter from his bounty hunting days. He was a cold-blooded gunslinger, killing with mercy or remorse. Carson had always kept one step ahead of the bounty hunter.
The Carson gang had robbed their way through Texas and Arizona, leaving a trail of bloody bodies in their wake. Vin caught up to them a couple years prior, and managed to catch two of them, one Carson's brother Deke. The remaining eight fled, continuing their rampage. Two weeks ago, they'd hit Four Corners, killing a bank teller and shooting up the town. The Seven took chase, and a gun battle ensued outside town. Two of Carson's men were killed, including his kid brother, Danny. Two more were wounded. Nathan declared them fit for travel and Josiah and J.D. escorted them to meet the prison wagon. Mary found a note pinned to the Clarion's front door, the day after the killing. It promised revenge, citing Vin specifically. Carson knew the sharpshooter's skill was responsible for their losses.
"It so happens I have a business engagement and will be travelling south. I will keep an eye out for Mr. Tanner." Ezra commented, tipping his hat to Larabee as he walked by the bar.
"A rather urgent matter," Ezra replied, "potentially life threatening."
"How's that?" Chris squinted, not trusting the green-eyed Charmer.
"I believe my life would be in peril, should something befall our illustrious sharpshooter. I have seen your temper in action, Mr. Larabee, and I can't afford to incur any more Medical bills." Ezra reached the door at the same time the reply did.
"You're a fraud, Ezra," Larabee muttered, "Keep your eyes open out there."
"Not at all, Mr. Wilmington's delicate condition prevents him from travel. I am merely taking his place on patrol. Your concern, however, is duly noted."
Chris was behind the desk at the jail, flipping through a new dispatch of wanted posters. There had been no real activity since the robbery. He'd patrolled the sidewalks, stopped in to see Mary, and even checked on Vin's wagon. He was restless; the quiet in the town was killing him. It had been two hours since Vin left. Even if the tracker made excellent time, he'd not likely make it back before dark.
"You're relieved Chris. Deputy Stinky is on duty," Nathan held the door, as Buck stiffly entered.
"Ow!" Buck winced, after swatting the grinning healer, "Damn, that smarts!"
Chris got up and steadied the taller man, easing him into the chair behind the desk. Buck left his arm across his middle, protecting the still healing ribs. Buck looked up and caught the dark face of his friend.
"Damn, Pard!" He announced, "Who pissed in your beer?"
"Vin bolted," was the clipped response.
"Hell, Chris," Buck theorized, "It's been close to ten days. We're lucky he didn't explode before now. I saw him prowlin' around at 2 a.m., he can't sleep. He can't be tied down, it ain't his nature."
"Should have tied him down..." Chris mumbled, reaching for his hat.
"Chris, how many men you ever known who can move like him?" Nathan asked, "He disappears faster than smoke. Carson won't catch him."
"Where'd Ezra slink off too?" Buck asked, setting up the checkerboard, as Nathan took the seat across from him.
"He claimed he was going on patrol." Chris said, opening the door.
"Voluntarily!" Nathan's voice rose, as did his dark eyes, "I need to check him for a fever."
"He tailin' Vin?" Buck squinted, as the sun shot behind Larabee's dark form, hitting him square in the face.
"Yeah...Vin said something about checking on Old Man Dixon."
"That's a good ride," Nathan mentioned, "We won't see him until dark."
Vin eased himself out of the saddle in front of the weatherworn cabin. Tethering the horse, he pulled out his gun and stepped up onto the porch. The slow creak announced his presense. He slowly peered inside, spotting the main room empty.
"Mr. Dixon," Vin called out, "Y'all here?"
Vin entered the small bedroom and heard the familiar crusty voice, now weakened.
"Doin' fine waitin' on Gabriel's horn, don't need any help," The old timer glared at Vin and his drawn gun.
"Sorry," He holstered the weapon and took off his hat, hanging it on the bedpost. He didn't need a trained eye to tell him that the elderly man's time was near. The slight blue tinge to the lips, labored breathing and painful hand clutching the chest was enough evidence.
"Take a load off, Son," He wheezed, nodding to the chair.
"Can I get ya anythin'?" Vin asked
"Drink," was the reply, accented by a burst of painful coughing. The weak hand grabbed his wrist and the old eyes pleaded with him, "There's a spot out back, next to Hannah..."
"I'll see to it, Mr. Dixon," Vin spoke solemnly, "Ya rest easy. I'll fetch that drink now."
Vin eyed the sparse room and spotted a pitcher on a small wooden table near the door. He carried it outside to the pump. Dousing his head and neck, he took a long drink, before filling the pitcher. He got a tingle up his spine and eased the pitcher to the ground. In one fluid motion, he turned and pulled his mare's leg.
"Mr. Tanner, if you damage another one of my jackets, I shall be forced to take legal and physical recourse," Ezra warned, sliding off his horse.
"Goddammit, Ezra," Vin growled, replacing the gun, "I damn near shot ya."
"Sorry to disappoint you," Ezra droned, tethering his horse, "How is he?"
"He's dyin'" Vin stated, picking up the pitcher, "I'm stayin' 'til his time comes. He's got a spot out back, I'll take care of it."
"He was certainly a colorful addition to the citizenry," Ezra spoke, thinking on the many tall tales the old timer spun in the saloon. Buck was his biggest fan.
"He ain't a 'was', Ezra," Vin shot angrily, "Show a little respect."
"I didn't mean it that way," Ezra took a burlap bag off his saddle horn.
"Y'all can climb back up there and head to town," Vin shot, "In case ya hadn't noticed, I'm long out of nappies..."
"I am not a nursemaid," Ezra entered the cabin, "I can however, offer a meager meal."
Vin ignored him, continuing his journey back to the infirmed man's bedside. Ezra watched, not surprised at the gentle ministrations the tracker offered. He pulled the dying man upright and propped him against the backboard. He adjusted the tangled blanket and supported his hand, guiding the mug to his lips.
"You tryin' to kill me, Boy?" the old man coughed, spitting the liquid out, "Where's my drink?"
"Oh!" Vin laughed, realizing his mistake, "Where do ya keep it?"
"In a jug, by the fireplace," Dixon decreed, "More them feet, Son, I got no time to waste..."
Vin trotted to the stone hearth and picked up the gallon jug. Grabbing two mugs, he made his way back to the frail man's bed.
"Who's that?" Dixon demanded, spotting a figure in the distance.
"Ezra," Vin replied uncorking the jug, "He come to help."
"Hrrmph..." Dixon disagreed, "more likely he come to weasel me out of money, one last time. Say, Vin," He leaned in, "What kind of bird is he? Can't figure 'im...He ain't nuthin' like the rest of you fellas."
"Ezra's okay," Vin winked, "He ain't as clever as he thinks. He ain't got me fooled one bit."
Vin poured them each a mug and then glanced at Ezra, spreading some food out onto the table in the other room.
"Hey Ezra, grab a mug and get on over here," Vin crowed, "We're havin' a toast...say somethin' purty."
"Good Evening, Mr. Dixon," Ezra pulled up a chair and nodded.
"What the hell's so good about it? The crusty octogenarian declared, "It ain't bad enough I'm waiting on Gabriel's horn, I gotta go blind too," He winced, eyeing Ezra's red jacket.
Vin laughed and filled Ezra's mug. Ezra raised the tin cup and began. "May you be in heaven, a half-hour before the devil is aware of your demise."
"Right nice, Son," he lifted his cup to the two visitors and drained it, Ezra and Vin followed suit.
The two younger men instantly coughed and sputtered, so much so tears ran freely. It was several minutes before they caught their breath.
"Got a little kick to it," Zeke Dixon grinned at the tearing guests.
"Just a little..." Ezra wheezed, wiping his eyes, "Dare I suggest that this spirited beverage is the fruits of your own hand?"
"What the hell did he say?" Dixon frowned at Vin.
"Moonshine?" Vin croaked, throat on fire.
"Hell yeah...last jug, saved it special for this occasion. Vin, I want you see to it, all the boy's have a shot on me."
Vin nodded and corked the jug, setting it by his feet. He and Ezra watched as the old man's weary eyes ran around the room. He spoke slowly, of the fifty odd years he'd lived there. How a beautiful girl from back East journeyed with him into this wasteland. How they were the first white settlers in the area. Of the six children that were born but never lived past early childhood.
"She was some woman," His eyes glazed, "My Hannah...stood by me...fought off drought, storms, Indians, sickness, buried our younguns'. God she was beautiful..."
Both younger men were moved by the man's trip through his past. Ezra saw Vin's eye's shifting and realized, like he did, that the elderly man needed a moment.
"To partake in such a union, Mr. Dixon, is indeed a blessing," Ezra offered, sincerely, "Would you like a few moments to reflect?"
He looked at Ezra and a coughing fit overtook him, a violent one. Vin supported his back and Ezra felt the frail man's grip on his wrist. He saw the thanks in the tearing pale eyes and read what was written there.
"It was my pleasure, Sir," He reassured, nodding to the other room, after Vin got the patient quiet and settled.
"We're gonna grab some grub. I'll be right back," Vin promised.
"I cannot fathom having the internal fortitude of that woman," Ezra lauded, after the two had eaten.
"Pioneer spirit," Vin stated, eating the last cookie, "Stickin' together no matter what...standin' by each other, caring fer each other..fightin' together. It's what gives ya a backbone."
"Are you speaking from experience, Mr. Tanner?" Ezra guessed, "Your mother?"
Vin drained his coffee and shifted his eyes out to the night sky. His eyes seemed as wide as saucers, full of emotion. He rose and turned to go back to the bedside vigil.
"She was a Tanner," he said softly, eyes full of pride.
"Must be something in the name..." Ezra replied, clasping the buckskinned shoulder.
"Ya best get goin' Ezra, 'fore it gets too late. Ya watch yer back, out there."
"Very well," Ezra stated, "If you're sure..."
"Gonna be a rough enough night," Vin eyed the old man, "Don't need no damn six-foot, green-eyed monster barreling in here."
"Understood," Ezra nodded, slipping off his jacket.
"You still here?" Dixon croaked, eyeing Ezra.
"I am about to make my journey back to our quaint little town," He laid the jacket on the old man's legs, "Mr. Dixon, I'm leaving this as a token of my esteem." Ezra took the extended hand and shook it.
"Hell, Hannah won't recognize me in that damn thing," He wheezed, "It'll knock her right over," Grinning up at Ezra he concluded, "I'll put a good word in for ya, Standish, You're gonna need it."
"How very thoughtful," Ezra nodded and tipped his hat, disappearing out the front door.
He was mounted and turning to leave, when the soft twang floated over.
"Hey Ez," Vin said tapping the conman's knee, "What ya done, that was real nice."
"On the contrary, that jacket never fit me correctly. Mr. Dixon is doing me a favor."
"Yer a damn puzzle, Ezra Standish..." Vin grinned, catching a gold glint of the toothy Southerner's grin, as he rode away.
The long, hot dusty ride into town left the rider weary. The only thing he sought more that a hot bath, was a stiff drink. He entered the saloon and went behind the bar, grabbing a bottle of Kentucky Bourbon. He felt the three sets of eyes studying him intently and slid into a seat at their table. He downed the first shot and had the second poured, when a the first growl emerged
"Where is he?"
Ezra ignored Chris Larabee, who was making his headache quicken by the minute. He was in the process of lifting the beverage to his lips, when his arm was snagged.
"I asked you a question," The voice burned.
Ezra glared at him and stood, shoving him backwards, "Well thank you so much for you deep concern. I am fine, in perfect health and was not accosted by any highwayman, drifters, or murdering bastards, on my way back here."
"Dammit Ezra," Chris growled, grabbing the Gambler's collar, "Don't fuck with me. Where the hell is Vin?"
"You couldn't be more obvious," Ezra spat, "I dare say that if Mr. Tanner waltzed in here, I would be reduced to a pile of ash before you'd think to inquire on my well being." Ezra threw off the black arm, grabbed his bottle and turned to leave. "He is standing vigil with Mr. Dixon, who is drawing his last breath. Vin will return tomorrow, after he attends to Mr. Dixon's remains. Gentlemen," He tipped his hat to Buck and Nathan, keeping his back to Larabee.
"You ever think about Charm School, Chris?" Buck uttered, shaking his head.
Chris left without replying, throwing himself onto his horse and heading out of town. He doubled back and eased up behind the buildings. He slid off Destiny and carefully made his way to Mary's backdoor. By the time he entered, his black mood had passed.
The food was delicious, the wine was sweet and the mood was right. The rich, red vintage helped to fuel a burning in Chris's loins. He slid his arms around her waist as she put the dishes away. She felt his hot breath tickling her neck, and his lips burned a path behind. She turned, meeting his passion with a long, probing kiss. The furious minutes that followed started as a trail of hot kisses that led to a tangle of limbs and discarded clothing in Mary's bed.
She groaned as his lips and hands seared every inch of her. Suddenly, he sat up on the side of the bed.
"I can't...not to you...not like this..." He said softly.
She turned the handsome face and read the fear in his eyes.
"Always the protector, Peacekeeper?" She teased "I'm no blushing sixteen-year old virgin, Chris, and my virtue doesn't need saving."
She silenced him with a deep kiss, slow and deliberate. She felt the growl emit deep within him and forced him back onto the soft, feathery haven. Releasing his bruised lips, she grinned down at him.
"I can be a naughty girl..."
"I like naughty..." He smiled and inflicted sweet punishment.
It felt as soft as a butterfly wing. She blinked to find him dressed, staring down at her, stroking her cheek. The tenderness of the voice surprised her.
"You're quite a Lady, Mrs. Travis,"
"Stay..." She pleaded.
"I'm leaving as I came. Nobody saw me, that's how it stays."
She rose to protest, but he was gone. The only company she had was the leering moon.
On The Road
J.D. glanced at the grayish remains of a former animal on the plate in front of him and grimaced. Shoving the excuse for breakfast away, he managed to gag down the remains of what he could only hope was coffee. The jowly, aging waitress gave him a coy smile, which only upset his stomach worse.
"Whoever named this town had a cruel sense of humor," J.D. remarked, eyeing the dilapidated saloon they sat in.
"Interesting play on words," Josiah agreed of Blossom, as he too, pushed away the sorry excuse for food.
They'd ridden hard the previous day and stumbled across the all-but-dead town quite late. Needing a bath and a bed, they decided to stay over. The morning light only cast a sadder pall on the town. Most of the businesses had long moved on, and only a handful of citizens were left.
"Where you boys from?" The nearly toothless waitress inquired, cozing up to Josiah, who stiffened.
"Four Corners, Ma'am," J.D. replied, grinning at Josiah's pained expression.
"Ain't that a kick," She cackled, slapping her ample thigh, "Had a bunch of fellers through her yesterday headed that way. Rough lookin' pack, mean and low-down, was glad to see 'em go."
Josiah turned, drilling his eyes on the crone-in-waiting. An uneasy feeling settled in his gut.
"Who were they?"
"Don't recall all their names, real scruffy outfit, ya know," She paused, rubbing Josiah's shoulder, "Now you're a fine cut of a man..."
"Those men...you were saying," J.D. interjected, as Josiah squirmed.
"Huh?...Oh yeah, well as I recall, they seemed to be takin' orders from a mean lookin' cuss named Snake. He had a scar runnin' down his face, an eye patch, long stringy black hair and a mustache," She shivered recalling the man's face.
"About Four Corners," Josiah asked, "Did they mention why they were headed there?"
"Somethin' about executin' some fella named...Larson, no they ain't right," She paused, "...Larabee, that was the name."
"Damn!" J.D. stood, "Josiah we gotta warn Chris..."
"We'll send a wire," Josiah noted of the early hour, "Best we can do is hope we're in time. When did they leave?"
"Three hours ago, maybe...it was still dark outside."
"Josiah?" J.D. inquired, his hazel eyes full of hope.
"I don't know, Son...they'll be there in a couple hours. Let's get that wire off."
It was early morning, when Vin arrived back in town. He saw to Diablo's needs and left the horse in the livery. He yawned his way up the street, aiming for the rocker just past the Clarion.
Mary tied her apron on and checked the printer. She turned to pick up a pile of blank papers, and spotted the black kerchief. A smile broke on her pretty face. She lifted the scarf and ran it over her neck and lips, inhaling his scent. She was still tingling from the magical encounter of the night before. The force that he stirred in her, was like nothing she'd ever encountered.
Vin paused, catching a glimpse of Mary through the window and smiled, tipping his hat. He furrowed his brow and backtracked, eyeing the startled woman. Vin's keen observation skills compiled the evidence in front of him. Wearing a wolf's grin and shaking his head, he wiggled his eyebrows and crossed his two index fingers over each other. Mary stared at him aghast and her lusty blush turned to a raging scarlet mask. Vin laughed and walked just past the door, out of her view.
"Vin, wait..." Mary stumbled, groping for the door.
She stopped in the doorway, spotting the laconic tracker. His thumbs were hooked in his belt, with a dopey grin plastered on his face. The blue eyes twinkled and he unrolled his best drawl.
"Mornin' Mrs. Travis," he leaned in raising an eyebrow, "anythin' new?"
"Vin...you don't...it's not what..." She stuttered, grabbing his arm, "Get in here," she ordered, pulling him inside, "...and stop laughing."
He took both shoulders and sent her a reassuring blue-eyed beacon, "Y'all belong with each other...ain't nobody's business to say otherwise. 'bout time too...he's a bit slow on the uptake." He took a good look in her eyes and smiled, brushing a finger across her cheek, "Yer good for him Mary, even if he's too onry to admit it. He give ya that pretty color?" He smiled at her nodding head. "It's looks right nice on ya...hope it settles in fer a good stay."
He turned to leave and she caught his arm, leaned up and kissed his cheek. She smiled warmly, watching him blush a little, "That color looks right nice on you too. Thanks, Vin."
He nodded and stopped in the doorway, "Oh, by the way, I buried Zeke Dixon a few hours ago. Ya might want to put it in the paper. Reckon a lotta folks will miss him. Sure was a nice, old guy."
"Is that where you went yesterday?" She asked, watching him nod.
"Ain't right to die alone," He added, stepping out and closing the door.
"You're a good man, Vin Tanner," She mused, watching him head for the rocker for a short nap.
"Young man, about my message..." A burly businessman asked.
"I was here first, Pal, back off..." Another man elbowed up to the counter.
"Excuse me, Gentlemen, but I believe I am next," A well-dressed woman spoke up.
Andy Moore finished writing the incoming message, despite the clamor in the Telegraph Office. The three customers continued to banter noisily, demanding his attention. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted a familiar buckskin jacket.
"Vin! Vin Tanner!" He shouted. He ran around the counter, riling the customers up even further and stuck his hand out the door, "Got a message for Chris Larabee. Can't you give it to him?"
"Sure, Andy." Vin nodded, taking the yellow paper.
He watched Andy disappear back inside, where three customers were in the middle of a screaming match. He stared at the strange markings on the paper and sighed. Slipping the note in his pocket, he thought on his harsh words with Chris the day before. He passed up the nap in the rocker and headed for his wagon. He'd change his clothes and head out to the shack. He remembered Chris mentioning putting new shingles on the roof. The wagon was in the shade of the day and a refreshing coolness hit his face as he climbed inside. He leaned back, closing his eyes. The weary body without sleep for two days, suddenly felt heavy. He never meant to fall asleep.
Chris wiped his brow and gnawed on the nails in his mouth. Swinging the hammer, he continued to secure the loose shingles to his roof. He cast an eye overhead, the sun's position told him it was mid-morning, near eleven a.m. or so. He only had a few shingles left, and then he'd wash up and head for town. Maybe Vin was back. With every swing of the hammer, he felt his anger rise again. At Vin for being such a stubborn fool, and at himself for letting the Texan get under his skin.
A shot whizzed by his ear, shattering the shingle in his hand. He slid down the ladder and smacked his hand to his hip.
"Dammit," He swore, realizing his gun belt was on the porch.
He rolled over and took cover behind the rain barrel near the porch. More shots flew by, from all around him. His quick glance eyed at least six men, maybe more. One face stood out like a sore thumb, Snake McCall. Why wasn't he still in prison? How long had it been? Five years? Chris remembered McCall vowing revenge that day in the courtroom, as they led him away. He flattened himself against the wall and floor, as a burst of gunfire erupted.
"I'd like to stay and recall the old days," A voice leered from behind him, "But, I got another pelt to skin...a five-hundred dollar critter named Tanner. Heard tell he was a friend of yours, Larabee."
Chris turned and saw the shiny colt, cocked and aimed at his head. Snake hadn't changed much, still mean and ugly. A hand gripped the back of his collar and propelled him forward. He threw off the hand and scowled, which earned him a severe rifle butt to the ribs. Chris dropped to his knees, cradling his midsection and gasping for breath.
"You'll never catch him," Chris grunted.
"We're not only gonna catch that sorry bastard," a new voice said, sending a chill down Chris's back, "but we're gonna have some fun with him, all the way back to Texas. Make it a real memorable trip."
"Carson..." Chris winced. How did he hook up with McCall?
"In the flesh, Larabee," The outlaw said, viciously pulling Chris up by the hair, "Where is he?"
"Go to Hell," Chris spat, leveling a cold stare.
"You first," McCall growled, firing the colt.
Chris felt a white hot pain explode in the side of his head. He blinked drunkenly for a few seconds, as the faces looming over him grew further away. His last thoughts were of Vin's blue eye and Mary's sweet smile.
Cutter Carson squatted over Chris Larabee and gloated. He roughly closed his hands around the gunslinger's neck and shook his head
"He's had it. Let's ride."
"Tanner ain't in town," one of the gang stated, "Fella at the store said he rode out yesterday, headed south."
"Then south it is," McCall threw himself on his horse and trotted over to body, "Felt better than I dreamed, Larabee. It won't bring my brother back, but it felt damned good. Rot in hell you son-of-a-bitch." He spat on the ashen, still face and rode off, a loud whoop leading the men behind.
It was near to noon when Josiah and J.D. were approaching the road to Four Corners. J.D. reined his horse in and called to the older man, riding ahead.
"Josiah...Josiah, hold up," He paused as the graying preacher turned, "Maybe we ought to split up? I'll ride to Chris's place, you check in town. I'll see you later."
"Okay, Son...be careful," Josiah boomed, casting a stern frown as the youth rode off.
J.D. took a short cut to Chris's and raced like the wind. He was out of breath as he dropped from his horse, calling for his hero. He saw the scattered tools first, and his heart started to pound furiously. His leaden legs managed to carry him forward, where he saw a stilled leg.
"No...Oh God...Chris?" He staggered around the corner, to the front porch.
"No...No..." He dropped to the stricken man's side and turned him over.
Strangely, there was little blood, just a small streak above the left temple. His trembling hands felt the clammy skin, inching towards the throat.
"Oh God," He croaked, his constricting throat suddenly dry, "No...No..." he threw his eyes heavenward, as tears sprung forth, "You can't be dead, Chris...I'll get Nathan...He'll fix you..."
Not finding a pulse, he laid his cheek over Chris's nose and mouth, there was not even a stir. He lifted his friend and embraced him. Tears ran unchecked down his face, as he struggled to fight the pain in his chest. He pulled Chris inside and laid him on the bed. He knelt and said a prayer, clutching Chris's hand.
"You taught me so much, Chris," He choked, "and I never got to say 'Thanks'..."
He paused in the doorway, catching one last glimpse of his departed friend and headed for town.
Josiah checked the saloon first, and found only Inez behind the bar. A few locals were scattered about, but none of the seven.
"Buenos Dias, Josiah," She greeted, "No, I have not seen anyone today. Nathan is at the Seminole Village. I haven't seen the others."
"If you see him or any of the others, keep them here. There's a gang gunning for Chris."
Inez's hand went to her throat and she nodded, as the large man left. He checked Chris's room, but the bed hadn't been slept in. Maybe the Kid would get lucky and find Chris at his shack. He tapped on Ezra's door, but got no response. He headed for the sheriff's office and found Buck behind the desk.
"Hey Josiah," the mustached-man grinned, pulling his feet off the desk, "Where's the Kid?"
"He's at Chris's...we got trouble," His tone and stare took the smile right off Buck's face.
"Me and the Kid were in a hole called Blossom this morning. Waitress told us yesterday, some gang was in town, bragging about executing Chris. They had a good three hour start or more on us."
"Damn," Buck swore, jumping up, "Who's gunnin' for him?"
"Fella's name is 'Snake'," Josiah replied, watching Buck's eye's darken, "I wired this morning..."
"Shit!" He pounded the doorframe, "He's supposed to be locked up for life. Chris testified against him, witnessed him killing three folks during a stage coach robbery. A few months later, Snake's kid brother called Chris out. Chris wouldn't fight him; he couldn't have been more than sixteen or so. Chris turned and walked away and the kid drew on him, caught him in the shoulder. Chris wheeled and fired, killing him."
"Where's Ezra and Vin?" Josiah asked, as they headed for Buck's horse.
"Don't know. Ain't seen either of 'em. Vin high-tailed it outta here yesterday, despite Chris's best efforts. Ezra caught up to him at Old Man Dixon's. Vin was planning on staying with him, until he died."
"Ezra!" Josiah boomed, spotting the Southerner leaving the hotel, "We got trouble..."
Ezra ran across the street and Buck filled him in. They were approaching the telegraph office, when they saw J.D. climbing off his horse. Buck got a sinking feeling, and closed his eyes.
"Kid?" He called out, "You find Chris?"
"He's dead." J.D. turned, his pale face suddenly seemed years older.
"Are you sure, J.D.?" Josiah asked, staring at the red-rimmed eyed youth.
"No pulse...no breath..." J.D. swallowed hard, "Who's gonna tell Vin?"
They stood stunned by the news, unable to fully absorb the information. Buck felt a pain inside, the likes of which he'd never encountered. A slow burning seared right through his body.
"How?" Ezra whispered, choking on his pain.
"Head wound," J.D. gasped, "I don't want to talk about it, okay?"
"Where is he?" Buck whispered, finally finding his voice.
"I put him on the bed, and said some prayers. That was okay, wasn't it?" J.D. sought Josiah.
"It sure was, Son." Josiah gripped the boy's shoulders.
"I wanna find out what happened to that wire," Buck demanded, stalking into the Post and Telegraph Office.
Andy jumped up when he saw the four men storm inside.
"Trouble fellas?" He asked, backing away from Buck Wilmington's raging face.
"Did you get a wire this morning for Chris Larabee?" He growled, grabbing the startled clerk's collar.
"Yeah...real early, I gave it to Vin Tanner."
"Vin?" Buck dropped the clerk, "Are you sure?"
"Yes Sir," Andy recalled, "He looked right at it and took it with him."
"J.D., You see any signs of Vin out there?" Josiah asked.
"No, Chris was alone."
"Something is most certainly amiss," Ezra squinted into the sun, "Perhaps these murdering outlaws who caused Mr. Larabee's untimely demise, also caught Mr. Tanner, on the road."
"Don't say that, Ezra," J.D. shouted, "Vin can't be dead too."
"We'll split up," Josiah suggested, "I'll head out to get Nathan, and go to Chris's. You three try to find Vin."
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