Chris Larabee looked up from his book, to study the long-haired man crossing the street toward him.
"Hey, Cowboy," he called as Vin Tanner climbed up the porch stairs. Reaching the top step he sat down, and leaned back against the porch rail.
"Hey, Cowboy," Vin answered with a smile, enjoying their private joke.
The two sat in companionable silence for a while. Chris had returned to his reading, when Vin spoke again. "I'm getting restless Chris." Vin said quietly, as he rubbed a tired hand across his jaw.
Chris simply nodded. He had seen the signs in Vin for the past several days. The tracker's inability to stay indoors for any length of time. Constant fidgeting. This, from a man who was usually so still, Chris sometimes felt the need to check if he was still breathing. Chris knew Vin wasn't sleeping either. He'd seen the tracker walking around town in the early hours of the morning. Vin just seemed to need time to himself periodically. Time that he used to keep the walls from closing in around him. Or the demons from catching him, Chris thought to himself.
Chris looked at him a moment and finally nodded, "You headin' out for a while?"
"Yeah," Vin answered. "Need to spend some time in the desert. Clear the sounds of this town outta my head." Vin met Chris' eyes briefly before returning his gaze to the busy street. He reached into his pocket and pulled something out Chris couldn't identify.
"Tonight?" Larabee asked, familiar with Vin's habit of starting these little treks of his at night.
"Yeah," was Vin's only response.
Silence settled in again as the two enjoyed the warm day. While the nights in May could still be plenty cold, the days were warm and bright. The chill of winter had finally lessened its hold on the town. Chris studied Vin carefully, watching him toy with his prize. It looked like a lady's locket, but Chris couldn't be sure. Something was eating at the man that was for sure.
However, Vin wasn't one to share his troubles with the men around him. Chris had to respect that. His own demons sometimes drove him to try and drown them in a bottle. Vin simply chose to try to lose his in the vast wide open spaces the desert provided.
"Buy you a drink before you head out?" Chris finally asked.
"Sounds good," Vin replied replacing the object in the pocket of his hide coat. He rose and followed Chris down the steps to the saloon.
Neither Vin nor Chris noticed the tall man dressed in a tan slicker and calf skin boots, as they made their way to the saloon. The man flicked the butt of his cheroot into the street, and turned back to the mountain of a man standing behind him.
"They almost finished replacing that shoe on your horse?" Bob Colter asked the other man, as they walked back into the blacksmith's shop. The clanging of the blacksmith's hammer stopped abruptly as the smith leaned over to size the shoe to the hoof.
"Yeah, boss," Tom Polk answered. He rolled the wad in his cheek and leaned across Colter to spit into the firepit. "Where'd Zeke and Jake get off to?"
Colter grimaced as he tried to ignore Polk's manners. He avoided associating with Polk, whenever it was possible. The man was an unkempt brute. His shirt was stained with things, Colter didn't even want to contemplate. He smelled as bad as he looked. However, with the Railroad payroll coming into the Four Corner's bank the next day, he didn't trust the others with this job.
"They're gathering information around town. We need to know as much as possible about the local law. I'm going to the saloon. When that smith's through with your horse, come find me." With that Colter stepped out of the shop and walked down the boardwalk.
Colter had just settled at a table in the saloon, when he caught sight of a long-haired man sitting at a table in the back. He was talking to a man dressed in black. Vin Tanner. He hadn't seen the man in years. His lips curled into a cruel smile. It looked like the town of Four Corner's was going to pay off in more than one way.
Colter poured himself a second whiskey from the bottle, when a short balding man pushed through the swinging doors. Looking around urgently, he spotted Colter in the corner sipping his drink. He hurried over to the table.
"Boss! Boss!" He started in a rush, his voice rising in his panic. Immediately Colter put his hand up, and motioned the man to be quiet. He surreptitiously glanced around, but the general noise in the saloon had covered his man's noisy outburst. He turned icy gray eyes onto the little man, who had just come into the saloon.
"Zeke, sit down and have a drink." Colter said harshly, motioning for the barkeep to bring another glass. When the barkeep left the glass, Colter poured whiskey into it. Zeke reached for it, but Colter put his hand over the top.
"Now, I want you to very quietly tell me what you came in to say." Colter said in a low voice.
"Boss, there ain't no money!" Zeke whispered excitedly.
Colter grabbed his shirt front and whispered harshly "What the hell do you mean there ain't no money?"
"Just what I said boss. I heard the telegraph man tell that banker fellow, the railroad sent a wire. They ain't sending no money till next week." Zeke whined his answer.
Colter pushed Zeke away and shoved his drink at him. Zeke picked it up and drank it in a single gulp. He looked longingly at the bottle and then back at Colter. Colter nodded sharply and Zeke eagerly poured himself another drink.
Damn! Colter thought. No way we can hang around for a week without being spotted. They were going to have to leave the town empty handed. He looked around the bar, and his eyes fell on Vin again. Tanner, he thought, we lost the money, but you are gonna be sorry we ever set foot in Four Corners.
Colter grabbed the bottle from Zeke who was just starting to pour a third drink. "Go find Polk and Jake. I want them back here in 15 minutes."
"Sure boss." The little man hopped up from the table and made his way out into the street.
Colter slowly sipped his drink, waiting for his men to come back. All the while he stole surreptitious glances at the table in the back. Tanner and his friend were just sitting there drinking. It didn't seem to Colter as if either one of them said a word. Finally the saloon doors swung open and his own men strode in. Colter looked to see if Tanner had noticed them. The black clad man glanced up for a moment, and said something to Tanner. Colter saw Tanner glance their way and shake his head no. Didn't even recognize me did ya boy? Colter thought. Well, boy, that is gonna be the worst mistake you ever made. Colter motioned to the barkeep to bring more glasses. He poured whiskey into them and smiled at his men.
"Boys" he began in a quiet voice, "I've got another job for you."
One by one, four other members of the seven had wandered into the saloon, and joined their friends at the back of the bar. Only Ezra, who was over in Bristol City for a poker game, was missing. None of the six paid any attention to the four men, sitting at a table in the front corner of the bar. None of the six noticed that at least one of the four seemed to have an eye on their table at all times. And none of them noticed that when Vin got up to go, a nondescript little man left the bar at the same time.
It was almost 9:30 when Vin made his way into the livery stable. The old man who ran the place was nowhere to be seen. He must have already gone to bed Vin thought absently, and started saddling his horse for the trip into the desert. He was planning on camping just outside of Four Corners that night. While he liked to start these little treks of his at night, he wasn't stupid enough to go wandering around unfamiliar ground in the dark.
Vin was checking his saddlebags, making sure he had everything he wanted to take with him. He smiled as he thought about the little routine that he went through, every time he made one of these treks. Old Two Feathers sure had trained him good, Vin thought with a pang of loneliness. Even after all these years, he still missed the old Indian. Vin pulled his harmonica out of the saddlebags, remembering how Two Feathers had taught him to hear the mountains when he played it.
"TANNER!" A voice called from behind him.
Vin turned around slowly, his hand reaching for his gun as he tried to identify the voice. A huge man loomed up in his vision, and he felt a white hot fire push through his middle. He gasped and sank to the stable floor, as his legs failed to hold him. What had just happened? Vin couldn't think past the pain in his gut. Three men surrounded him. The biggest of the three, was wiping a bloody hunting knife down with a bandanna. His blood, Vin realized. His hands instinctively clutched his middle, trying to keep the blood in. All his instincts were screaming at him to get away, but he couldn't make his legs obey his mind
"Hey Tom," one of the other two called nervously. "Bob wanted him alive."
"Yeah, well, he ain't dead is he?" Tom Polk answered. "I know what I'm doin'. Tanner'll get to where he's goin' alive. O' course he ain't gonna stay that way too long." Polk finished with a grin. He jammed his knife back into the sheath at his waist and looked down at the tracker on his knees, gasping in pain.
Polk reached out and grabbed Vin's long hair, and pulled his head back, so that he could look directly into blue eyes, that were now cloudy with pain. Vin groaned as the movement caused the pain to flare white hot again. He clutched uselessly at Polk, with the hand not trying to hold his blood inside him. However, all his strength seemed to have left him.
"Tanner, an old friend o' yours wants to see you." Polk told him with a cruel smirk. Polk shoved the tracker's head down, and Vin sank to the ground. He drew his legs up, and made himself into a tight ball, and tried to think over the fire that was consuming him.
"Gag him, and git him on his horse, and cover up that blood." Polk spat a stream of tobacco juice onto the floor, as he gave the other two orders. Immediately Zeke and Jake moved to gag Vin. Then they grabbed him by his arms, and shoved him up on his horse. Dizziness assaulted Vin. He reeled and began to slide from the saddle. It was clear that the only way he was going to stay there was to be tied there, so Polk took a rope down off the wall and tied Vin's hands to the saddlehorn. Zeke and Jake started kicking straw over the patch of blood where Vin had fallen. No one noticed a battered harmonica, that was soon covered with straw.
"Zeke check the street and go git our horses." Polk ordered. "Wouldn't want nobody interruptin' our party, would we Tanner?" He grinned cruelly up at Vin, who was now only semiconscious, and slumping over his horse's neck. Vin was only dimly aware of Polk talking to him.
Zeke came back into the stable leading three saddled horses. "All clear Tom," he reported. The three mounted, and with Polk leading Vin's horse, they made their way out of the livery stables, and out of Four Corners.
Ezra shivered slightly, as the cool night air was whipped by a small gust of wind. Sighing, he pulled his wool coat a little tighter around him. He had thought about spending the night in Bristol City. He hated traveling by horseback during the dead of night. However, the poker game had lasted far longer than he had anticipated. He had promised Chris Larabee that he would return by Saturday night. While Ezra didn't enjoy traveling at odd hours, he knew if he didn't return by his appointed time, the gunslinger's anger would be even less enjoyable. Ever since that fiasco at the Indian village, he had walked very softly indeed around Chris Larabee.
Only another mile or so he told himself as he stretched in the saddle, and tried to straighten the kinks in his back. Only another mile, and he would be enjoying the comforts of his feather bed and down pillow. Occupied by his thoughts, and exhausted from spending several hours in the saddle, Ezra failed to notice the rider stationed in the trees. He didn't however, fail to hear the click of a gun as a hammer was drawn back into firing position.
"Well, well, what have we here?" Bob Colter spurred his horse out from the cover of the trees. The man's six shooter was trained on Ezra. Ezra froze immediately. His horse tossed its head restlessly as it was pulled to a halt.
"Awful late for somebody to be out on this road, this time of night," Colter continued. "You wouldn't be that fancy gamblin' man belongs to that group of gunslingers back in town? The one due back in town tonight?"
"I don't believe we've had a proper introduction," Ezra said, as he sized up the situation he found himself in. He slowly began to nudge his horse around, trying to bring his right hand into the proper firing position for the little derringer. "It's not proper manners to pull a gun on a man you've just met."
Colter just laughed quietly as he glanced down the road towards town. They should be here any minute, he thought to himself. He hadn't really planned on taking anyone but Vin Tanner from Four Corners. However, the sight of the gambler riding back into town, and not minding his back, had been too good a chance to pass up. It might be useful to have a second hostage, just in case that group in town started to get anxious about Tanner.
"I'm the man your Mother warned you about," Bob Colter replied, as he sidestepped his horse closer to Ezra's. "Now real nice and easy like, why don't you hand over that pea shooter you're about to use on me. Then you can hand me the gun you've got in that holster, and your other hideout."
Ezra sighed, as he slipped the derringer out of the rig on his arm. Colter slipped it into a pocket of his coat. Under his breath Ezra whispered, "I don't recall Maude ever mentioning you." For the life of him, he couldn't figure out what was going on. He slid his shoulder gun out of its harness, and handed it to Colter. It was quickly followed by his main gun. Both disappeared into the saddlebags of the man still holding a gun on him.
"Well, now do you think we could introduce ourselves?" Ezra's question was cut short by the sound of approaching horses. Colter's attention was momentarily distracted from Ezra, as he turned to watch the riders approach. Ezra immediately seized the opportunity, to try to extricate himself, from his situation. Grabbing up his horse's reins and spurring the animal forward, he lurched into Colter's horse. It wasn't enough. Grabbing for the saddlehorn to maintain his balance, Colter focused his attention on Ezra once more. He clubbed the gambler across the temple with his revolver. The blow knocked Ezra from the saddle. His breath was momentarily taken away when he slammed into the ground.
Ezra was groggily aware of the danger, from the hooves of the two panicky horses. He rolled out from underneath the horses, and was spared any further injury. He pulled himself to his hands and knees, and raised a hand to his forehead. He winced, when his fingers caused a small stab of pain. They came away wet with blood. Colter's voice brought him back to his predicament.
"Did you get him?" Colter asked Tom Polk.
"Sure did, Boss," Polk announced proudly, and pulled the horse he had been leading to the front where Colter could get a look at its rider. Ezra looked up, as the as the riders came to a stop near him, and he realized that his bad night had just gotten much worse.
Ezra felt himself go white with shock. The rider on the horse was Vin Tanner, and from the looks of him, his night had been worse than Ezra's. His hands were tied to the saddlehorn, but that wasn't what caught Ezra's attention. Even in the dim moonlight, Ezra could see the dark stain on Vin's hide coat. Blood had also soaked the leg of his tan pants. Vin seemed only dimly aware of his surroundings. He was upright and no longer slumping over the saddle, but he was favoring his side. Undoubtedly, Ezra thought, the man was only staying in the saddle by sheer willpower.
To Vin, the ride from the livery had been pure hell. Every step his horse took had sent pain radiating through his side. No amount of slumping over, or favoring his side seemed to ease it. He could feel the blood soaking his shirt and pants. If he didn't bleed to death, it would be a miracle and he knew it. Colter had also noted the blood and Vin's semiconscious state.
"I told you I wanted him alive, Polk," he stated coldly.
"He's still alive Boss, I just figured he might try to put up a fight. This way, he don't got so much vinegar in him," Tom Polk defended himself. He was very proud of his skills with his knife. He had spent a lot of years learnin' just how much you could do to a man, without actually killing him. Besides which, word in town was that the gunslingers that protected it were a mighty salty bunch. Polk had simply decided to take no chances.
"Who's that?" Jake spoke up, pointing at Ezra, who was still on his knees in the road.
"This, my friends, is Mr. Ezra Standish. He's part of the seven, back in that town. I figured he would come in handy as an insurance policy, just in case his friends get any ideas."
". . . Ezra Standish" Vin had begun to despair when he heard the gambler's name. With a start, he opened his eyes, and focused as best he could, only to discover that Ezra seemed to be as much a prisoner as he was. The gambler was on his hands and knees in the middle of the road.
Colter turned his attention back to Ezra. "Get up and catch your horse. I want to get as far away from this place as I can before daylight. Don't try anything foolish or I'll take it out on your hurt friend there," Colter motioned towards Vin.
Ezra slowly climbed to his feet, bracing himself against a wave of dizziness. He easily caught his horse, which had not left the group.
"May I inquire as to our destination?" Ezra asked as he mounted. He noticed Vin start at the sound of his voice. Maybe the man wasn't as bad off as he looked. Then again, Ezra had seen day old beef that looked better than Vin did at the moment.
"Mr. Tanner and I have a mutual acquaintance," Colter stated as he holstered his weapon. "I think Earl, would like to see Vin again. Of course, Vin might not want to see Earl again. You wanta see Earl again Vin?" Colter reached up, and cut the gag off of Vin. He waited a few seconds, and when Vin didn't answer him, he laughed. "You got no idea who I'm talkin' about, do ya boy? Why don't you study on it some, it'll come to you?" With that he turned to Ezra and said in a hard voice, "Make yourself useful, Standish. Keep your friend there in the saddle. Oh, and don't try anything stupid."
Ezra sidled his horse next to Vin's, as Colter took the lead and the group headed out. Tom Polk was still leading Vin's horse. Polk grinned and pulled hard on the reins of Vin's horse, and the horse lurched forward. The sudden movement caused Vin to groan in pain, as he fell forward in the saddle. Ezra immediately reached out and took his the arm to steady him. The feel of Ezra's hand on his arm, helped Vin keep the blackness at bay.
Vin's eyes slid around until they come to rest on Ezra. "They got you, too, huh?" he managed.
Ezra was alarmed at the weakness in his voice. "Well, Mr. Tanner, it would seem that we find ourselves in quite a predicament. Would you mind informing me, as to exactly how you ended up in your condition?" Ezra asked. He easily surmised, that this group's interest was directed at Vin, and not at himself.
"They jumped me when I was saddling my horse," Vin answered. He drew in a slow breath, trying to keep the pain in his side from flaring up again. "Don't know who they are. I swear I'd remember the guy with the knife, if I'da seen him before. "Why'd they grab ya?"
"That was a question I was hoping you could answer, Mr. Tanner. It would appear that I am security, should our Mr. Larabee decide to take decisive action."
Vin wasn't able to hold the thread of conversation for very long, before the blackness threatened to overwhelm him again. Ezra's steadying hand, told him that at least he wouldn't face this nightmare alone
Ezra studied Vin, as their horses were led into the night. Judging from the blood staining his clothes, the tracker's wound needed to be tended to, and quickly. For all of Tanner's unrefined qualities, Ezra didn't relish the idea of watching him bleed to death. Ezra didn't have many friends, and he wasn't going to watch helplessly, as one of them met his fate, before his eyes. He would never admit it to any of the other six, but he had begun to enjoy their company. Ezra had been a loner, who relied on his instinct and skills to keep him alive, for most of his life. The idea of relying on another human being had been foreign to him, when he first met Chris Larabee and his companions. He never imagined he would ever find himself contributing to anything, other than his next con. He had come to find it oddly comforting, knowing that someone would be there to watch his back.
He reached out his hand to steady Vin again, as the tracker once more swayed in the saddle. This time, Vin didn't respond to Ezra's touch. He just continued to slip lower in the saddle. Ezra swore under his breath.
"Pardon me," Ezra spoke loudly enough for Bob Colter to hear him at the front of the group of riders. The others also turned their attention to him. "Mr. Tanner needs medical attention. He'll bleed to death if that wound is not attended to properly."
Colter had reined his horse around, and let the riders pass him, until he was riding even with Vin and Ezra. Tanner was looking mighty pale, he decided. Good. If the knife wound kept the tracker from causing trouble, as Polk had boasted earlier, it would make getting him back to their base camp that much easier. However, Colter didn't want Tanner bleeding to death, before Earl had some fun.
"There's a spring a few mile ahead. We'll stop there to water our horses. You can tend to your friend there," Colter told Ezra. Riding closer to Ezra he said threateningly, "You try anything stupid, Standish, and I'll turn Polk and his knives loose on your friend. Understand me?"
"Perfectly," Ezra replied. Sighing, he decided that his night certainly wasn't improving.
"Did you get that Polk?" Colter called up to Tom who was leading the group. "We'll stop at Barrel Springs."
"Got it, boss," Polk replied. Smirking at Ezra, he turned his attention back to the trail he was following.
Less than half an hour later the group reined to a stop beside a small stream. Bob Colter motioned to Ezra to dismount, and told Tom Polk to untie Vin. As Polk reached over and untied him, the exhausted tracker swayed, and would have fallen out of the saddle if Ezra hadn't reached up and as gently as possible eased him out of the saddle. Ezra staggered back as the former bounty hunter collapsed against him.
"Mr. Tanner," Ezra began, as he struggled to keep his partner relatively upright, "I require some assistance on your part." While Vin didn't weigh all that much, Ezra was afraid that a fall would cause the tracker further injury. Vin managed to take some of his weight onto his own legs and Ezra guided him closer to the springs where he had easy access to the water. Gently, he helped Vin lower himself to the ground and leaned him back against the rocks at the edge of the spring.
"Still with me?" Ezra asked clasping the tracker's shoulder.
A nod was the only response Vin could manage, as he clutched at his side and grimaced against the pain. The gambler stood and went to find something to put water in. He spied Vin's canteen hanging off his saddle. The tracker must have been preparing for one of his midnight treks Ezra surmised, when Colter's men had waylaid him. He lifted the canteen, and searched Vin's saddlebags for something to use as a bandage. He found Vin's spyglass carefully wrapped in a fairly large piece of white cloth and hastily removed the cloth. Better to risk the spyglass breaking, than Vin bleeding to death, Ezra thought.
He approached the spring when Tom Polk stepped in front of him. Ezra sighed, what more was he going to be forced to contend with? Being polite to this rather odoriferous man wasn't high on Ezra's list, but Vin needed his help now.
"Excuse me, but if Mr. Tanner is to survive . . . to see Earl again . . . I require access to water."
"Polk!" Colter yelled from where he was watering his horse, "Leave him be, and take care of the horses. I want to get back on the trail."
Polk glanced at Colter before turning his attention back to Ezra, "We're gonna have us a real nice talk later, " he sneered. Rolling the wad in his mouth, he spit a stream of tobacco juice in Ezra's general direction. He turned and took the rein's of Vin's horse along with his own horse, and led them downstream to where Colter and the other two outlaws were watering the rest of the horses.
Ezra filled the canteen, and knelt beside Vin. He gently helped the tracker to raise his head enough to drink a few sips of the cool water. When Vin either wouldn't or couldn't drink anymore, Ezra eased his head back against the rock, and turned his attention to tending the tracker's wound.
Ezra carefully moved the hide coat aside. Vin's blue shirt was stained purple with blood. Vin hissed in pain, as Ezra tried to ease his shirt aside, and it pulled against the dried blood surrounding the wound. Weakly he pushed at Ezra's hands, trying to stop the pain.
"I know it hurts Mr. Tanner, but I have to clean and dress this wound before infection sets in." Ezra sucked in his breath at the sight of the ugly gash in the tracker's side. "When you make enemies, Mr. Tanner, you take care to do a good job of it."
When Vin offered no response, Ezra tore the cloth into two pieces. He carefully set the larger piece on the cleanest rock he could find. He wet the other piece and began cleaning the wound as gently as he could. Vin let out a low moan, but to Ezra's surprise the tracker didn't move. When Ezra had cleaned away the dried blood, he was relieved to see that the wound was only seeping blood.
"Mr. Tanner can you hear me?" Ezra asked softly. The tracker didn't respond so Ezra continued, "You need to brace yourself. I'm going to pour whiskey into the wound." Ezra told him quietly. Vin opened his eyes slowly and nodded when he saw Ezra taking the flask from inside his jacket. This wasn't Ezra's idea of how to use expensive Kentucky bourbon, but if it kept the tracker's wound from getting infected, the sacrifice was well worth it. A short strangled cry from Vin was the only indication as to how much it hurt when Ezra poured a generous amount of whiskey onto the wound. Hell, inflicting that kind of pain on the man hurt Ezra. He glanced at the tracker. Vin was pasty white and beads of sweat covered his brow. His eyes were closed, and Ezra wasn't sure if he was conscious or not. After laying the flask on the ground, Ezra moved to the stream. He carefully rinsed the blood out of the cloth, and then returned to the injured man's side, and gently bathed Vin's face and neck with the cool rag.
Ezra carefully folded the large square of cloth, and finished bandaging the wound. He tore a long strip from the bottom of the linen shirt he wore, and tightly wrapped it around the tracker's middle to keep the bandage in place. Lifting the canteen carefully to the tracker's mouth, Ezra helped him drink again.
Colter saw that Ezra had finished bandaging Vin's side and interrupted, "If you're through holding his hand, we need to get movin."
Before Ezra could think up a proper biting response, Tom Polk walked up leading their horses. Polk leaned down and grabbed Vin's arm and started to drag him to his feet.
Ezra was on his feet instantly, and shoved the huge man aside. "I'll take care of him." The gambler stated flatly, staring into the oaf's face.
Polk was enraged, and would have killed Ezra on the spot, but Colter's harsh, "TOM!" stopped him in his tracks. Still, he fingered his knife as he stalked away. Ezra breathed a sigh of relief, when Polk backed down so easily.
Ezra knelt back down and picked up his flask. When he replaced it in his vest pocket, his fingers brushed against his ever present deck of cards. A slow smile crossed his face, and he leaned down close to his injured partner. "Mr. Tanner," he whispered. "I believe we are about to have a change in luck. Can you put your arm around my neck?"
Vin didn't answer, but he reached up and put a weak hand on Ezra's shoulder. The gambler put both his arms around Vin's back and carefully lifted him to his feet. With Ezra's help, Vin managed to mount his horse. Tom Polk tied the tracker's hands to the saddle again.
"Let's get moving. Earl's been waiting four years to meet up with ol' Vin again, and I don't wanta keep him waiting anymore." Bob Colter laughed cruelly. If he hadn't been so preoccupied with thoughts of his brother's revenge, he might have noticed a playing card carefully tucked half under the rock Vin had been lying against.
Comments to: Kim & Shawna