What if Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner were unknowingly...
Old West Alternate Universe
"Looks like he's got a concussion," Nathan reported. "If Vin's right about the way he hit that building, I can't say I'm surprised. But there ain't much I can do about it just now. If he'd been awake when you fetched him in, I could at least keep wakin' him up every hour or two, till I was sure his head wasn't broke. As it is he'll just need to come to on his own--or not. I put him on my cot, and Chris is watchin' him for now. Where the hell is Buck at? How'd he let somebody do the boy this way?"
Vin sighed wearily. "Damn if we know, Nate. We checked with Yosemite. JD got in just about five minutes before I got there, ridin' Plata and leadin' Seven, one saddle, both horses done up and blowin' like blizzards. The feller that got away must've been the same you patched up earlier; we got a good description of both of 'em, and we found the dead one's horse, all saddled and ready to go, but there wasn't nothin' on it to tell us who he was or why he might've been here."
"I took the body down to the undertaker's," Josiah added, "and stopped at the jail to look through the poster file. I thought I'd seen one that listed a man with that description, and I was right. His name wasn't known, but the description fit. Three hundred dollars reward for bank and stage robbery, and a notation that the military commandant of Chihuahua would pay another fifty pesos for him, dead or alive."
"Any word who he rode with?" Vin asked.
"No," Josiah admitted, "just that the robberies had been committed by a gang of no less than ten."
"Don't mean he's still with 'em," Nathan observed. "Gangs splinter and re-form all the time."
"Gentlemen." Ezra hadn't spoken before, but his firm interjection silenced everyone. "Such random speculation is both pointless and a waste of what may be valuable, indeed vital, time. We must bring deduction to bear."
"De--what?" Vin asked. "What's that, Ez?"
"Deduction," Ezra repeated, "is a new science--a type of logic, if you will--which has been used to great effect by the police in England. A keen tracker such as yourself, Mr. Tanner, uses it regularly while on the trail, though you may not be aware of the fact. Mr. Larabee does the same when sizin' up a possible enemy. So does Mr. Jackson when he examines a patient. Let us consider what we know to be true. Mr. Dunne returned with both his own horse and Mr. Wilmington's, both showin' unmistakeable evidence of havin' been ridden hard and long. That is the case, is it not?"
"That's what Yosemite said," Vin agreed. "Can't think of no reason he'd have to lie."
"Very good. And there was but one saddle, which tends to suggest that Mr. Dunne was changin' from one mount to the other."
The tracker nodded thoughtfully. "I reckon so."
"Now," Ezra proceeded, "had Mr. Wilmington met with some fatal mishap between here and Corona, it stands to reason that Mr. Dunne would have fetched not only his horse but his saddle and gear. In any case, knowin' as we do the closeness of their bond, it further stands to reason that in such an eventuality, the young man would have telegraphed the news to us rather than merely returnin' alone."
"That makes sense," said Josiah. "If Buck had been killed, JD would take it hard. He'd want friends by to help him through, and he'd know we'd want to be at Buck's burying if we could."
"Exactly my own thought, Mr. Sanchez. Therefore it seems logical to deduce that Mr. Wilmington is alive, but has been injured to the point of bein' unable to ride. And it further seems logical that Mr. Dunne has left him in the care of some professional person, quite possibly in Corona, as the time period which has elapsed since their departure hence is certainly sufficient for them to have reached their goal."
"We could send a telegram," Nathan suggested. "If there was some kinda ruction down there, the sheriff would know."
"However," said Ezra, "he might not be able to supply details enough to explain Mr. Dunne's obvious haste to return to our fair community. Let us continue as we have begun, Mr. Jackson. Regardless of the exact nature and cause of Mr. Wilmington's indisposition, I dare speculate that Mr. Dunne would be most reluctant to leave him, particularly among strangers, unless he were compelled to do so. Might it not be that Mr. Wilmington himself urged him to go?"
"Why you reckon he'd do that, Ez?" Vin asked. "When he took that saber cut at the Seminole village, seemed like he got well faster on account of havin' JD with him. Why'd he chase the kid out?"
"Vin's got a point," Nathan agreed. "I seen my share and more of saber cuts in the War, and I gotta say I don't ever recall one healin' as quick and clean as Buck's done. I got a notion havin' his brother around to keep him company done him a world of good. There's a lot doctors don't know yet about how moods and such tie in with the body, but I done watched two men with almost the same injury or sickness, side by side in the same hospital, and the one whose wife or mother was there to nurse him always got better quicker."
"An astute observation, Mr. Jackson," Ezra told him. "Here our knowledge of Mr. Wilmington's character may lead us to an answer. Certainly the incident we all remember was not the first time he has been ill or injured since assumin' the guardianship of his brother; indubitably he must be aware that havin' the lad's company hastens the process of his recovery. What might he consider more important than his own physical well-being?"
"Us," Josiah said briefly. "Us and this town. If he had some reason to think we were in danger--"
"--An' 'specially if he figured we was like to be surprised or outnumbered and be needin' every gun we could get," Vin finished, "he'd send JD up to warn us and help us."
"Excellent deduction, gentlemen," Ezra applauded. "Possibly Mr. Wilmington overheard somethin', or recognized someone, in Corona which led him to believe a threat existed; possibly that was the cause of his inability to come back himself. Knowin' that he was in competent hands, he appealed to his brother's obligation, as sheriff, to the welfare of the community, and required that Mr. Dunne leave him to recover on his own and ride hither to carry the word." He looked at Vin. "Did you not say, Mr. Tanner, that one of the miscreants escaped?"
"Yeah. I's too busy with JD to follow him, but I figured I'd try to pick up his trail at first light, see if I could figure which way he went--"
"With respect, Mr. Tanner, I suggest that you refrain from such a course of action," the gambler told him. "Mr. Wilmington must have had cause to think the odds would be perilously high in favor of our unknown foes, for him to do as he clearly did. It would be unwise for us to spread our forces thin at this juncture. We know that the creatures who assaulted our young compatriot were strangers to this town. Why, then, would they do so, unless they knew him from some other place? Perhaps they were in some way connected to the oncomin' threat."
"Scouts, you think?" Nathan guessed.
"Wouldn't surprise me," Josiah agreed.
"And the deceased was said to be one of a gang of no less than ten--which may be interpreted to mean more than ten," Ezra recalled. "And we are at this point only four at full fightin' trim. You see, Mr. Tanner, that we cannot risk you also fallin' afoul of these phantoms. Your eyesight is the best among our group. You would better serve us by takin' a high position--on the hotel roof, perhaps, or in the belfry of Mr. Sanchez's church. From such a vantage point you could almost certainly discern the approach of any sizeable group, and be enabled to warn us of it. If these men were indeed scouts, as Mr. Jackson speculates, the main body is doubtless close by. Knowin', as they shortly will, that one of their number is dead, and havin' no way to be certain that Mr. Dunne was not able to give us whatever details he possesses, they will be obliged to make a choice: will they go forward with their plan, whatever it is, or not? If they do, they must act quickly, hopin' to catch us before we can mount an adequate defense. Should they not appear within the next thirty-six hours, I dare say we can assume that they have resolved to pass us by. In that eventuality, you can still attempt to pick up their trail, should you wish to do so. But for the present, we must consider that Mr. Dunne risked himself, and was injured, in order to warn us, so that we might defend ourselves and the town. To fail to do so would be to betray both him and his brother. I for one do not propose to be so lax."
"Ezra's got a point, brothers," Josiah observed. "We were hired to do a job, and that comes first. Coverin' each other's backs comes second--and we're too shorthanded to be flying off in all directions."
"Might be best we don't clump together, though," Nathan suggested thoughtfully. "Just make us a better target if we do--and there'd be the chance these fellers would decide to hit where we wasn't at."
"Question is, where do they figure to hit?" Vin wondered. "Bank? Express office? Saloons?"
"A valid concern," Ezra agreed. "Shall we, then, cover all bets?"
"You got a plan, Ez?" the Texan demanded.
"I do indeed," the gambler told him, and smiled broadly but not altogether pleasantly, his gold tooth giving back lamplight. There was a suddenly predatory air to him, a less refined version of the way he looked when he had a pigeon set up for a con and was moving in for the kill. "Mr. Jackson, might I impose upon you for a paper and pencil?"
Any follower of a trail in country rich in cover is at the mercy of the man he follows: the pursued has only to choose his spot and wait, or at most, to double back and get his shot. Corona's Sheriff Hammond and his chief deputy were both experienced enough to know this, and they kept alert as the posse threaded its way deeper into the mountains. But no one can maintain that level of tension forever, and Virgil Sablett banked on that fact. He knew that even if he and his gang eluded the pursuit, the posse might simply turn back and start sending out telegrams once it got home. Therefore he needed to do something which would either delay (or prevent) the possemen's return, occupy their thoughts to the exclusion of all else, or both. And so he did. Some seventeen hours into the pursuit, just as the posse was stirring about preparing breakfast, gunfire erupted from three sides of its camp. Horses panicked and men still barely awake struggled to adjust. Hammond was killed in the first barrage, the deputy wounded. The survivors forted up as best they could. Even when the volume of fire diminished and finally ceased, they hardly dared stir for half an hour, and when they did, their first care had to be their wounded. Several horses had broken their tethers and run off; further pursuit, even leaving the wounded behind with someone to care for them, was impossible, and provision had to be made to get everyone home, some afoot, some on travoises. It would take more than a day. Meanwhile, Sablett and his triumphant followers sideslipped back down onto the flat, picked up the northbound road, and resumed their interrupted journey.
That was Monday morning. At dawn on Tuesday they connected with Sahoni and learned what had happened in Four Corners. Learning that Sheriff Dunne almost certainly knew of their plans and had contrived to get there ahead of them made most of the gang members uneasy: they had no grudge against Chris Larabee, and didn't like the idea of going into a town that might be warned and expecting them. Two or three suggested giving it a miss for now and trying again in a week or so, after Tanner and Dunne were off their edge. Sablett wouldn't hear of it. If Wilmington had survived, he might be home by then. Larabee might be recovered. The odds would never be better than they were right now. And Sablett had been waiting fourteen years for a chance at Larabee. Now that he knew where the man was, and knew he wasn't at his best, he had no intention of waiting any longer. Again he pointed out that any town going so far as to hire four peacekeepers must be a rich prize. Sahoni's report of the character of the people he and Lance had observed about the place added force to the argument. In addition, both Sablett and his gang shared the peculiar attitudes of mind common to all criminals, including the refusal to admit that the breaks might not go their way and the enormous conceit that inspired a belief in their ability to outwit the law. Their successful ambush of the posse from Corona only pumped them up the more. It didn't take long for Sablett to convince his followers that they could do the job. Sahoni sketched a map of Four Corners in the dirt, pointing out the bank, express office, best saloon, major stores, and jail. His fellows committed it to memory and checked their guns while their horses rested, then set out.
Vin Tanner sat cross-legged behind the high false front of the hotel, his Winchester lying on the roof beside him within easy reach of his hand. From here he could scan both ends of the main street plus a wide semicircle of outlying country, and by shifting position regularly he could check the landscape to his rear. His spyglass was securely tucked into the pocket of his buckskin coat, ready to be pulled out if he sighted anything he thought might bear a closer look.
JD hadn't regained consciousness yet, and Nathan was frankly worried: the longer he stayed out, the healer said, the likelier he'd never wake up. But they were too shorthanded to permit Nathan the luxury of staying at the clinic with his patients. Instead he'd been stationed in the back room of the express office, and Josiah under the saloon awning where he'd be able to see Vin's signal. Ezra, naturally enough, was in the saloon, but closer to the bar than was his usual wont, with not only his ordinary hand artillery--Remington sidearm, Colt Richards Conversion, and derringer--but his rifle tucked handily behind it. The post office and general store, considered slightly less likely targets, had no one on station in them, but Vin and Josiah between them could cover the doors of both.
Chris had wanted to take some part in the operation, pointing out that even if he couldn't stand on his own or move freely, there was nothing wrong with his ability to use a rifle from cover. It had taken Vin and Nathan together to force him to agree that he'd stay put and "look after JD, 'cause we can't;" that appeal, carrying with it the sense of obligation toward both the injured boy and his older brother, had finally persuaded the gunfighter to give in. Even then, they'd had to remove his clothes, and Nathan's big War-vintage Spencer carbine, before they felt easy in their minds.
A drift of moving dust caught Vin's attention, and he focused on it, but it settled back too quickly to have been raised by any living thing. Likely a dust devil. Off to the north his keen eyes marked an eagle on the hunt, flying back and forth like a dog running a trail. He checked the sun: maybe half an hour short of noon. The street below was growing quieter as people headed in for dinner. The peacekeepers had discussed the wisdom of warning the populace of what might be about to come down their throats, then decided not to. It might cause panic, and if it didn't, the outlaws would be less likely to suspect a trap if the people they sighted were behaving normally.
Suddenly Vin heard a sound that brought him to full attention, the back of his neck prickling with a chill that was half superstition and half something else. It was a deep-throated howl, heavy with basso and contralto--a wolf. He sat up straight, eyes sweeping the horizon in a long circle like the beam of a lighthouse, as the sound repeated. Coyotes, he knew, routinely hunted by day, and howled frequently when doing so, but when wolves were out howling at midday, they were starving. No wolf should be starving at this season. Which meant it wasn't an ordinary wolf. His brother was calling him, trying to warn him. A third time the wolf gave tongue.
Off to the north, the eagle had ceased his hunting flight and was hanging high and motionless in the air. He'd seen something--not prey, but men. Of course, any number of people might be approaching from the north with quite harmless, or at least legitimate, intent. But that wolf-- It howled again, and then silence shut down like a curtain falling. Even the small sounds of the town seemed to give way to a hush. When the wolf called four times to a war party, it was a warning. Vin and his fellow peacekeepers were a kind of war party, waiting in ambush for their enemy. He pulled out his spyglass and trained it on the eagle, then let it drop straight down. He was just in time to spot a cluster of mounted men pausing at the extreme end of its range, then breaking apart in two's and three's, one group coming straight down the road toward the town, the others looping around the sides. Vin's heart rate picked up. They'd circled, figuring the peacekeepers would expect them to come from the south, and now they were splitting up, probably meaning to strike at several targets simultaneously. It was a good plan, if slightly risky: it would--they probably hoped--force the regulators to split up too, in order to deal with them in each individual spot they struck.
Vin stood, waving his hat to Josiah, who raised one hand and leaned in over the batwings to warn Ezra before jogging down the street and vanishing inside the bank. He would take up a position behind the counter and be ready when the outlaws came in. Vin settled back behind the shelter of the false front, picked up his rifle and made sure there was a round in the chamber. He didn't bother to keep cases on where the outlaws were; he knew they were coming in, and that was all he really needed. He'd see them when they made their move, which would be time enough. With him and Nathan on this side of the street, Ezra and Josiah on the other, they'd be all set not only to spring a surprise on any outlaws who walked into the specific buildings where they were, but to catch in a crossfire any who might remain. Shorthanded as they were, with Buck missing in action and Chris and JD laid up, Ezra's plan was the only one that had any real hope of succeeding.
He whispered thanks to his guardians for their warning and set himself, waiting with the patience the Comanches had taught him.
The outlaws came in as Vin had guessed they would, three straight up from the south, two from the north, others threading their way through the alleys onto the main street. The bank, being the place likely to have the most people in it, attracted one of the larger detachments. One pair headed for the express office, another for the saloon, a third for the post office. Vin, from his eyrie, saw most of them and let them go on about their business. You couldn't shoot a man for what you thought he was about to do; you had to give him the opportunity to actually make the attempt before you had a legal excuse to move against him.
Ezra looked up from his layout of solitaire as the two outlaws came in and paused a moment just inside the door, glancing around at the two or three early clerks who were husbanding their meager pay by taking advantage of the free (if cold) lunch to be had with any nickel glass of beer, at the bartender and at last Ezra himself. He let his right hand slide under the table and quietly draw the Remington, levelling it. When the would-be robbers pulled their guns, he was ready. "All right," said one of them, "everybody stand where you are. Barkeep, hand over the till."
The 'tender shot a quick glance at Ezra, observing the faint predatory smile he wore and the brightness of his eyes. "No, gentlemen," the gambler drawled softly, "I think not." And as they turned their attention to him, he added, "In the name of Circuit Court Judge Orin Travis, I place you under arrest."
At almost that exact moment, another pair of brigands entered the express office, where the agent was just unwrapping the lunch his wife had packed for him. "Open the safe!" one of them ordered.
Before he could move, the door to the back room crashed open as Nathan put his left hand on the edge of it and threw it back against the wall. The agent prudently dropped flat just as the healer flung a knife--and Ezra's Remington, its voice muffled by distance and intervening walls, bellowed from the saloon as he fired upward through the tabletop.
In the bank, Josiah popped up from behind the counter in between two tellers, who, like the agent, had the sense to take cover. "The Lord said, 'Thou shalt not steal,' " the preacher scolded, smiling wickedly.
Vin heard Ezra fire and came up on one knee, levelling his rifle past the edge of the false front. An outlaw hurled himself out through the batwings and the tracker yelled, "Stand where you're at!"
The outlaw's head jerked up, closely followed by his sixgun. Vin leaned a little sideways and squeezed the trigger; the bullet's breeze fanned his ear as his own Government .45-70 round knocked the man's leg out from under him. Shots exploded from the bank. Ezra came out under the batwings in a rush, Remington in one hand, rifle in the other, banking on his distinctive dress to keep Vin from firing at him. He scuttled for cover behind a watering trough as outlaws burst out of the express office and the Potter mercantile almost simultaneously.
Virgil Sablett and Devin Crowley had let their men go on ahead, quietly dropping back, letting each detachment think one of the bosses was with it. Four Corners might indeed be a rich prize, but that wasn't why they were here. The healer's clinic, according to Sahoni's map, was near the edge of the town. They headed there.
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