The big sergeant squatted by the fire and stared into the flames, a tin cup of coffee cradled in his gloved hands. At the crunch of footsteps on the hard ground, he looked up, squinting against the glare of the morning sun, and watched the corporals approach.
"Rider comin in, Sarge," the corporal reported. "Looks like Carson."
The sergeant nodded, and sipped from his coffee. "Bring im to me," he ordered tersely, returning his gaze to the fire.
"Will do, Sarge," the corporal answered. He turned and walked to the edge of the camp, awaiting the incoming rider and hoping for good news. Theyd been at this way too long now, and with nothing but the loss of three men to show for it. He was tired, tired of the heat and the dust and the endless, futile chase, and just wanted to see it finished.
But he knew good and well Sarged have em out til Judgment Day if that was what it took.
The rider came in and the corporal waved him over, then called for a trooper to take care of the mans hard-ridden horse. "Sarge wants t see ya," he said, giving the man no time to rest.
The newcomer sighed tiredly and nodded, having expected this. As he followed the corporal to the fire, he reached up and absently massaged his aching neck, eyeing the soldiers about him warily. Lord, hed be glad to get gone from this bunch!
"Mr. Carson," the sergeant greeted as the man squatted across the fire from him. "You find em?"
Carson sighed again and poured himself a cup of much-needed coffee. "Hell, no," he answered, little caring now how the big man took the news. "An I aint gonna, neither." He jerked his head back toward the jagged mountain range behind him. "Theyre up there, in the Devils Backbone, n aint leavin no trail ta folla. N I dont know them mountains good enough ta track a buncha renegades that cn disappear inta thin air."
"Yer scared," the sergeant sneered, his gray eyes hard and cold.
Carson chuckled humorlessly. "Damn right, I am! Thems Comanches were after, n I got too much respect fer them sonsabitches not ta be scared. You want em, fine. But I aint goin up there."
Anger rose through the sergeant at the trackers declaration, and his mouth twisted into an ugly scowl. "Yer bein paid"
"Yaint payin me that much, Ford," Carson retorted. "Not enough ta git mself killed by no damn Comanche."
Fords eyes narrowed as he stared contemptuously at the man. "Thought ya said yous a tracker. Thought ya said yous good."
Carson shrugged and drank from his coffee, refusing to be baited. "I am good. But I aint no Comanche."
"Theyre renegades," Ford went on, his voice bitter and filled with venom. "Killed three a my men"
"N Im real sorry bout that," the tracker answered. "But I aint goin up there." He took another long drink, swallowed, and declared firmly, "Im done."
"Howre we sposed ta find em without a tracker?" Ford demanded harshly, infuriated by the possibility of seeing the chase ending here, now, when they were so close he could almost smell his prey.
Carson stared at him, seeing the soldiers anger and more determined than ever to get himself as far from these men, this man, as he could. "I know mebbe where you cn find one."
Fords big frame stiffened visibly, and his flinty eyes bored steadily into Carson. "He any good?"
"Oughtta be. Heard he was taught by Injuns. Reckon you need somebody like that."
"Where is he?"
The tracker frowned in thought, and after a few moments said, "Theres a town, mebbe two days south of here, called Four Corners. It aint much, but theres seven men who guard it like it was gold. Hes one of em. I hear he cn track a flea in a sandstorm. Reckon if anybody cn find them Injuns, itd be him."
"Powell!" Ford bellowed for the corporal, rising abruptly to his feet. "Break camp, get mounted! Were gonna find ourselves a real tracker!" He glared down at Carson. "Now, you draw me a map, show me how ta find this town, then get the hell outta my sight!"
Carson exhaled slowly and began sketching the map in the dirt, only too happy to comply if it meant getting the hell away from here. He didnt care about finding any renegades. All he wanted was as much distance between himself and these soldier boys as possible. Especially Ford.
Son of a bitch was crazy.
+ + + + + + +
Vin Tanner rode carefully down the hill that led to the place he sought the secluded spot sheltered by tall cottonwoods where the small stream widened and deepened into a cool, clear pool. He came here often, and always before or, like today, after a visit with Chanus people. It was a ritual with him, a way of preparing to step from one world into another.
Of taking time for himself, so he could find what Kojay called "balance," that place in himself that allowed him to move between his two worlds without getting lost in either.
He stripped his gear off Peso with unhurried, easy movements and rubbed the big gelding down thoroughly, speaking not a word to the animal, but letting his hands do his talking for him. When he had seen to his horses needs, he turned to his own, making a small but comfortable camp, gathering wood and building a fire, putting on a pot of coffee.
He always ate and drank real good in the village, but, damn, he did miss his coffee!
When the coffee was going, he stood up and indulged in a long stretch, working the kinks out of his back and shoulders. Then, unable to resist the lure of the pool any longer, he stripped himself of his hat, gun, clothing and boots, looped the holster of his mares leg over one bare shoulder, and walked the short distance to the water. Laying the gun on a rock at the waters edge, he waded into the pool.
Lord, this feels good! he sighed silently as the water closed about him in a cool, wet caress.
He wasnt much of a swimmer, but didnt need to be here. The water only came to mid-chest, and he let himself sink into its embrace, delighting in its cool comfort after the heat of the day. He ducked his head under, scrubbed at his face and long hair, then rose to the surface and threw back his head to clear the sodden hair from his face.
Damn, he loved this place!
It was one of the few secrets he still held from Chris and the others, one of the few parts of himself that he had yet to share. He didnt come here when one of them accompanied him to the village, but had to content himself with finding his balance some other way. Because he knew they would not could not understand the importance, the power, of this place, and why he needed it so.
He lay back and let himself float on the water, closing his eyes and relaxing, taking refuge in the silence and solitude that engulfed him, seeking his peace in the peacefulness about him. He let the quiet seep into his bones, into his soul, and gave himself over to it. The sun warmed him and the water cooled him, and he floated, suspended between the two.
At long last exactly how long he neither knew nor cared he emerged from the water and walked, dripping, back to his camp, retrieving his gun along the way. He allowed the sun and the heat of the day to dry him, then got dressed and finally poured himself a cup of the long-awaited coffee, raising the cup and inhaling deeply of the rich, strong scent.
It was a damn shame Chanu and his people didnt drink coffee.
A rumbling in his stomach suddenly reminded him how long it had been since hed eaten, and he smiled slightly. Wouldnt be any trouble findin supper hereabouts. And if he knew Kojays wife, shed likely put a little something for the trip in his saddlebags. He grinned again and shook his head.
Whyd every woman he know seem to take it as her personal duty to fatten him up?
He made no move either to go through his saddlebags or go hunt for supper, merely sat cross-legged before the small fire and sipped his coffee, enjoying this particular moment. Chanus village was behind him, the town was ahead. But right now, all that mattered was that he was here.
Food could wait. For a man with his eye and his aim, there would always be food. But there wouldnt always be this quiet.
He sat and drank his coffee, the silence within him as deep as the stillness about him. Hed found his balance.
He wished he had the words to explain to the others why he needed this so. Why he, who seemed to move so easily from one world to the other, needed this time and space to pause between them and breathe.
Maybe because he knew it wasnt really as easy as it looked.
He knew Indians, or some of them, knew their ways, their customs, their beliefs, and was comfortable with them. Hell, most times they made more sense than anything hed seen or heard white folks do! Those ways touched something strong and fierce within him, set his spirit free instead of trying to shackle and tame it. And hed learned so much in his times among the various tribes, about the land, about people, about life. About himself.
Fact was, though, no matter how much he respected them, no matter how much at ease he was with them or how at home he felt in their world and with their ways, he wasnt one of them and never would be. Not down deep inside, where it mattered. In the end, when he went into their world he was only visiting.
Then there were his own people. He sometimes thought he knew less about them than he did Indians. Maybe because there were so damn many more of them, all of them saying different things, believing different ways. So many saying one thing but doing another, professing beliefs that never quite matched their actions. And so many who didnt seem to believe in anything at all. They confused the hell out of him sometimes. Sorting through them all could be a never-ending puzzle.
He was one of em, but he didnt always understand em. And that made it awful hard to live among em.
Sometimes he felt like he didnt belong anywhere at all.
He smiled at that. Well, maybe one place. One dirty little piss-ant town in the middle of nowhere that somehow managed to attract trouble like a dog did fleas. A town full of folks he didnt always understand, and who sure as hell didnt always understand him
But whod accepted him as one of their own anyway. One of their regulators. One of their "Seven."
And Lord knew he seemed to belong with the other six, though he still wasnt sure how that had happened. Because hed never belonged anywhere, with anybody, before. And hadnt really wanted to. Most folks just werent worth the trouble. Except those six.
Not that he always understood them, either. Hell, sometimes just trying made his head hurt something fierce!
Ezra had those fifty-dollar words that werent like any hed ever heard before and didnt mean much to him when he heard em now. Except that if he listened to em long enough, he was bound to lose some money. Then there was Josiah, with those stories that went on for days, that wound around and about without ever reaching any point that he could see, and that usually left him with more questions than hed had when they started.
Hell, between Ezra and Josiah, was it any wonder he needed to go off on his own now and again to find some silence?
Then there was Nathan. Kindest man in the world. Til you riled him. Then hed plumb carve you into pieces. But, damn him if he didnt always try to sew the pieces back together. Just didnt make any sense! But when you were sick or hurt, couldnt anybody care for you better than Nathan. Or find more ways to torture you with those God-awful potions hed concoct. Didnt seem fair to poison a man whod already been shot, and then claim it was for his own good.
Buck and JD? He chuckled quietly. Hell, there was a pair!
Big, good-hearted, easy-going Buck, whod never met a woman he couldnt love, given two or three minutes. But he liked men, too. Hell, hed be anybodys friend if they gave him a chance. And when you were Buck Wilmingtons friend, hed move heaven and earth to help you and keep you from harm. But if you ever crossed him or hurt somebody he considered a friend, then hell wasnt big enough to hide you. Buckd come after you tooth and claw, and show you just how deadly serious a fun-lovin scoundrel could be.
As for JD, Lord love him, he had all the makings of a real fine man, if only the rest of them could keep him from dying young. The boy was smart, no doubt about it, but didnt always take time to think. Used his heart more than his head. But, hell, at least he had a heart, and a good one, too. And nerve. The boy had more sheer nerve than anybody hed ever known
Except for one man, whod spit in the Devils own eye and then grin when hell erupted around him.
Chris. Now, how in the hell did he ever end up friends with a mean-eyed, hard-assed, closed-mouthed, stiff-necked sonuvabitch like Chris Larabee? And whyd he trust him so completely when hed never trusted anybody that way before? Hell, hed just up and told Larabee about that bounty on his head when they hadnt known each other for more than a couple of days, and never once worried the mand turn him in. Instead, Chris had said theyd clear his name, and, hell, he believed him. Even with Eli Joe dead, he still believed it.
Chris said it, and that made it so.
Not that the man was always right about everything; he wasnt. Not that Larabeed ever believe that. But there was a right in him that couldnt be ignored. When he spoke you had to listen, even if you didnt particularly care to hear what he was saying. Because if it came from Chris, it was worth listening to. And unlike most folks who seemed to carry so much right inside them, hed listen to others, too.
Tanner snorted. Well, he would if you could just get through that rock-hard head of his and reach his brain!
Fact was, Chris Larabee was probably one of the smartest men hed ever met. Damn sight smarter than hed ever be, even if he ever really learned to read. Chris didnt have Ezras fancy words or Josiahs complicated stories, but, in Tanners eyes anyway, the man was as smart as they came. He knew so damn many things ranching, people, places, life
Well, hell, he knew about life, too, but more bad than good. Most of what he knew about people, a man didnt have any business knowing. And learning it all had taught him some powerful lessons in pain. He knew an awful lot about what was wrong, but only because hed seen so much more of wrong than he ever had of right.
Except with Chris and the others, it wasnt like that at all. He was learning how to be with folks who wouldnt go out of their way to hurt him, who didnt look down on him because maybe he wasnt as smart as they reckoned he oughtta be and didnt have manners as polished as most folks considered proper. For the first time in a long time, he was learning how to trust. How it felt to have friends to ride the river with and whod watch his back. How it felt to belong.
And that wasnt an easy lesson to learn, especially when he hadnt ever belonged anywhere before. In the past, when he got fed up with folks hed just ride out. Didnt have anybody who cared if he came back or not or whod come looking for him if he didnt. Didnt have anybody who cared if he lived or died. He had that now, though, in spades.
And sometimes it scared the shit out of him.
Because it sometimes made living hard, knowing his deathd be harder on others than it would be on him. It scared him to know he mattered, when hed never mattered to anybody before. And it scared him knowing others mattered to him more than he did himself.
He sighed and shook his head, then finished his coffee and poured himself another cup.
Nope, they were wrong when they thought it was so easy for him to move in and out of their world like he did.
Fact was, it was getting harder to leave it all the time. And for a man whod always lived between worlds before, that was the scariest notion of all.
+ + + + + + +
Four of the seven sat in the saloon, taking refuge from the afternoon heat outside. Ezra dealt yet another hand to each, his long fingers working the cards with an effortless, fluid grace. JD watched intently, certain he would be able to spot any cheating move the gambler made. Buck watched boredly, waiting for one of the working girls to appear and offer him a more interesting game.
And Chris watched as he always did, with an apparent boredom that masked his habitual intensity. He knew Ezra wasnt cheating, knew the man didnt have to against them. But even playing straight, Standish was damn fascinating to watch.
He never gave anything away, never let you see any more than he wanted you to. He was smoother than silk and slick as oil, and everytime you thought you had a handle on him, he just slipped away again, with never a hair out of place. But, damn, he had the strangest knack for doing the right thing when you needed it most, which seemed to surprise him as much as it did anyone else!
"I presume Mr. Tanner will be rejoining our august company presently?" Ezra asked, picking up his cards and glancing at them with great, if well-concealed, satisfaction. "Surely even our peripatetic compatriot would prefer the comforts of civilization to the infernal conditions outside."
"Hell," Buck grumbled, eyeing his cards with disgust, "he probly dont even know its hot out there. Probly wearin that damn coat, too. Yknow, sometimes I wonder about that boy " He threw his cards down and glared at Standish. "Shit, Ezra!" he growled. "Ya couldntve dealt me a worse hand?"
"Even I have my limitations, Mr. Wilmington." He turned innocent green eyes upon the big man. "I take it Lady Luck has not smiled upon you, then?"
Buck scowled. "More like she shot my dog and stole my horse! Cant ya let me win once in a while?"
Horror flooded Ezras face. "Why, sir," he gasped, "I am appalled! That would constitute cheating!"
"And we all know," Chris chimed in with a sly grin at his old friend, "Ezra here never cheats."
"Like hell," Buck muttered, glaring murderously at his sorry cards.
"He didnt cheat, Buck, honest!" JD declared with unshakable conviction. "I was watchin him the whole time. I woulda seen if hed tried somethin."
"Ah, the boundless faith of youth!" Ezra sighed, smiling at JD. "How it does warm the cockles of my heart to hear such a passionate and spirited defense of my virtue and honesty."
"Hell," Buck snorted. "Cant have cockles on a heart ya dont have, Ezra."
Standish turned back to the big man and gazed benignly at him. "There is no need to be insultin, Mr. Wilmington. If the cards are not to your liking, you can simply fold."
At that moment, young Violet came downstairs and smiled invitingly at Buck, bringing a broad, bright grin to his handsome face. "Well, then, Ezra, I fold!" he announced happily, getting to his feet. "Found a game bettern cards!"
"My, my," Ezra drawled, watching the man cross the saloon to the join the working girl at the bar, "what a surprise. But, come, gentlemen," he returned his attention to the game, "let us persevere without him."
Before they could do more than ante up, however, the batwing doors swung open and two dust-coated figures strode into the saloon with such force that all eyes were immediately drawn to them. One man was at least as big as Buck but more thickly built, while the other was smaller, perhaps JDs height, but lean and wiry. The faded blue of their uniforms showed them to be soldiers, and the yellow stripe running down the outside seam of their pants legs identified them as cavalry.
They went immediately to the bar, and the big man, a sergeant, slapped down some coins. "Two beers!" he barked in a hard, harsh voice.
His cards forgotten, Chris straightened slightly in his chair and watched the two intently. Soldiers didnt often stop in town, and when they did it usually meant trouble. He went over in his mind all he knew of the goings-on in the area over the past few weeks, and came up with nothing that would explain the cavalrys presence. All had been quiet. No Indian trouble, no problems with the Army payroll that had just come through, no more than the usual bandit activity at the border.
Maybe they were just passin through, he thought with more hope than conviction.
When the sergeant had gotten his beer, he lifted it and took a deep swig, then turned around. He leaned on one elbow, pressed his back against the bar and swept cold, appraising gray eyes over the interior, as if surveying a potential battlefield. When his gaze reached the black-clad man at the table on the second level, two pairs of eyes met and locked. The big mans mouth curved in a wolfish smile. He had found the leader of the so-called "Seven."
"Im Sergeant Jake Ford, leading a detachment from C Company, Third Cavalry, out of Fort Scott," he announced loudly, his stare never leaving the man in black. "Im intersted in findin a tracker lives hereabouts. Ya know him?"
Chris stared at the man as a sudden anxiety stirred within him. If he remembered right, Fort Scott was in Texas. It wasnt like the Army to send men out after bounties, but God knew what wild stories were circulating about Vin over there now.
"There some trouble we should know about?" he asked laconically, never answering the soldiers question.
"Got some Injuns need findin. Renegade Comanches, holed up in the mountains near here. Been chasin em nigh on a month now an Im tired of it. I want em caught, and I need me a tracker ta do it. Heard theres a goodun ta be found here. So Ill ask again yall know where he is?"
Ezra lifted a keen green gaze to the sergeant, studied him a moment and took an immediate dislike to him. The mans arrogance was obvious, but, beneath it, Ezra sensed something worse, a hard, brutish nature that strongly hinted at cruelty. This was not a man into whose clutches he would care to see a friend of his fall.
"I do believe," he began slowly, returning his attention to his cards, "that, on occasion, the aforementioned individual is known to patronize our modest establishment. Thoroughly disreputable in appearance long hair, unshaven, unkempt, with an appalling propensity for clothing himself in the skins of dead animals. Has all the social graces of a grizzly bear with a toothache."
Chris smirked at the description, but JD leaned forward and hissed, "Ezra! If Vin heard you talk that way about him, hed"
"Yes, well, he is not here, so my health and longevity are assured," Ezra murmured complacently. "Unfortunately, Sergeant," he said in a louder voice, "the man in question has not been seen around here for some time now, and God knows when he will appear again. He is not comfortable with civilization, and avoids it with an almost religious fervor."
Ford eyed the men at the table with thinly-veiled hostility. They had to know where the tracker was. Carson had said the man was one of this towns seven regulators, and it was clear these fellers, too, were the law. Yeah, they knew, but were tryin to hide it. Well, he could be patient. He had work to do, work that needed doin, and to do it he needed their tracker. And there was nothing these fancy gunslingers could do about it.
"Well," he said harshly, his eyes again locking with Chriss, "I reckon Corporal Powell and Ill jist stay here a while, wash down some a this dust and see if this feller shows. Hope yall dont mind."
Chris watched him turn away and scowled, put on edge by the big mans manner. He knew it didnt matter if they minded or not. Ford was staying.
Hell, Vin, his mind whispered. Whatve you landed in this time?
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