The man in black strode into the saloon looking seemingly casually around the room but his intense gaze scrutinized the room full of people. The majority of occupants he knew. His fellow peacekeepers, townspeople, ranchers, cowhands. He made his way to the bar still surveying the room. Three men were worth his interest. Not because they looked threatening. Quite the contrary really. But he didn't know who they were or what was their business in town. Until he did, they were all a potential threat.
He nodded to Inez as he reached the bar.
"Senor Larabee" Inez greeted as she reached the end of the bar where Chris Larabee stood.
Chris acknowledged Inez with a nod and a faint smile.
"The usual?" Inez enquired. Chris' smile broadened. Inez made sure he and the rest of the seven got the better quality whiskey.
"Thanks, Inez" Chris replied. Inez moved down to the other end of the bar to retrieve the whiskey and glasses. While he waited, Chris looked over to the 7's usual table. Only Vin, Buck, JD and Ezra were here tonight. Josiah and Nathan had been invited to Mrs Potter's for dinner. Chris suspected that Mrs Potter only invited Josiah to supper but somehow the wary ex preacher had managed to have Nathan included. Buck's laughter erupted across the room and judging by the scowl on JD's face and the amused looks of Vin and Ezra, the joke was at his expense. As she returned with a bottle of unopened whiskey and glasses for him and the other present peacekeepers, Inez recaptured Chris' attention.
"All quiet?" Chris murmured softly.
Inez smiled as she replied "Si, Senor." Then lowering her voice she continued "The two men down the front work for the government. They've been doing some work in Eagle Bend. They're heading out in the morning for Ridge City, catching the train home to Denver."
Inez glanced towards the small middle aged man who sat by himself at the table close to the usual table where the 4 peacekeepers sat. "The other man is a cowhand looking for work. Says he's going to try his luck at the James ranch tomorrow" Inez finished smiling effortlessly as if she had just told Chris something amusing.
Chris returned the smile. He had never asked Inez to gather information for him. Of her own accord, Inez had started providing any information, tips or news she had collected through her work behind the bar. Chris appreciated the extra knowledge and Inez's instincts on who could cause trouble and who were harmless. So far the pretty Mexican had been fairly accurate.
"Thanks again, Inez" Chris told her.
"Your welcome, Senor" Inez replied warmly.
As Chris gathered up the bottle of whiskey and glasses, Inez's attention was drawn across the room towards Buck. The ladies man caught her look and grinned at her provocatively, causing Inez to roll her eyes.
"Can I ask you something, Senor?" Inez asked before Chris moved off.
Chris turned his attention back to the pretty Mexican, whose smile had now disappeared. "Sure" he replied with care, knowing the subject of Buck was about to come up.
"Senor Buck. He tells me you and he have been friends for 12 years. Is this true?" Inez asked.
"Pretty much" Chris replied with an amused smirk.
"You have never been tempted to shoot him?" Inez asked incredulously.
Chris grinned this time. "Once or twice" he admitted easily.
"Then I admire your self control, Senor because this ... arghh... makes me loca. Si?" Inez replied, indignantly folding her arms to her chest.
From the other side of the room, Buck watched Inez talking to Chris with a lot of curiousity. Once the fiery Mexican folded her arms, he knew they were discussing him. Head swelling with this insight, Buck decided to have a little fun.
"Now, Chris" Buck's loud voice boomed across the saloon. "Don't go upsetting my woman there, pard."
"Your woman!" Inez retorted with genuine disgust. She glared at him then hissed a barrage of insults in Spanish before turning around with a haughty air and disappearing through the doors into the saloon kitchen. Laughter echoed around the saloon leaving Buck looking bewildered.
"What did she say Vin?" Buck asked as Chris reached their table and pulled out a chair with his foot.
"Don't reckon I could repeat it" the tracker told him while the others chuckled.
"I know she wants me" Buck declared "She's just holding back."
"Then she's doing a remarkable acting performance of loathing your presence" Ezra quipped.
"Yeah Buck" JD added quickly "Too bad you lost your animal maggotism." The others all laughed, while JD looked pleased with himself. He never got enough opportunities to embarrass Buck.
Buck looked at his young friend with annoyance. "I keep telling you kid. It's mag...ne...tism and I haven't lost it!" Buck said adamantly. As Buck finished his declaration, there was a loud crash from the kitchen, followed by the further yelled insults and swearing in Spanish.
There was even more laughter this time and Buck started to shift uncomfortably in seat. He honestly couldn't understand how Inez could resist him for so long. Knowing that his rejected advances were public knowledge was even more frustrating, especially when Ezra took such apparent enjoyment in his continued humiliation.
Like now, Buck thought. Ezra was still chuckling and shaking his head. "Mr Wilmington, if you insist on continuing to anger my partner, you will leave me with no choice but to ban you from this establishment" Ezra told him, changing his facial expression from amusement to stern disapproval.
Buck fell for it. "Now just a minute Ez" Buck protested. "You wouldn't..."
Chris poured himself and the others a drink. All except JD, who still drank sarsperilla or milk despite the ribbing he got from Buck. He passed the first glass to Vin.
"Thanks, Cowboy" Vin said and smiled when Chris returned a mock disapproving look.
Chris' attention was caught by the man at the next table, who stood and limping slightly, made his way to the bar. Chris guessed he was around 50, with greying hair and beard. Only a small man, maybe 5'6" with the same withered face and tired expression that many old cow hands had. Chris made the decision that he was no threat and dismissed him from his thoughts. He returned his glance to Vin, who was regarding him with an amused expression.
"Somethin' on your mind, Vin?" Chris asked.
Vin shook his head. "Nah" he drawled softly, however, Chris wasn't convinced and Vin knew it as he gave Chris a small lop-sided grin. Vin enjoyed making Chris uncomfortable about his "mothering". While it was obviously apparent to tracker that Chris was always alert, vigilently ensuring no-one got the chance to hurt his 'family', Chris had formed a special attachment to Vin. And it had happened in an instant. An exchanged look of such intensity that Vin instinctively knew it would change his life. Only Vin knew how much Chris cared about their little group. His ever watchful gaze and instincts for trouble kept the 'Larabee gang' more or less safe. Vin suspected none of the others realised just how much the dark and relatively emotionless gunfighter needed to keep his friends safe or how much all of them meant to him. But from the day that Chris and Vin saved Nathan's life, they had been able to communicate their thoughts, their feelings and sometimes their instincts on a level that neither could fathom.
+ + + + + + +
Harry Cray ordered another drink and made his way back to his table, deliberately avoiding eye contact with any of Four Corners' peacekeepers and exaggerating his slight limp as much as possible. He had noticed the man in black as soon as he entered the saloon. It was hard not to, the man was an imposing figure. Cray knew this had to be Chris Larabee. That meant he had now seen 5 out of the reported 7 peacekeepers who watched over this town. The others were easily identified even from the limited details he had been told. The fancy dressed man had to be the gambler, Ezra Standish. The kid with the Sherriff's star was JD Dunne and the tall, mustached man that was rarely from the kid's side had to be Buck Wilmington. So that left the man with the long hair and buckskins. Vin Tanner. The man his employer wanted. The man he was sent to spy on.
When he had left his table to get another drink, Cray realised immediately he was under scrutiny from Chris Larabee. He didn't panic and moved slowly towards the bar pretending to be unaware of the brief attention he had been subjected to. When he returned with his drink and sat down stiffly, he risked a glance at the peacekeepers' table. The man in black was not paying him any more attention. He had been dismissed as a threat. Cray was not surprised. That was his talent; he blended into the background. A small, slight man with a limp. That no one gave a second look. Which is why he was ideally placed to gather information. It was what made him valuable to his employer.
+ + + + + + +
A few drinks later, Vin announced he was going to turn in.
"You and Josiah headed out at first light?" Chris asked.
"Just me pard" Vin replied "Josiah's helping Nathan tomorrow at the Seymour ranch".
"Then I'll come with you" Chris stated. It wasn't a request.
"You did patrol today. I'll be OK Chris" Vin drawled quietly yet firmly.
Chris saw the determined look on the tracker's face and knew intuitively that Vin wanted time alone. He wasn't surprised at all. After all, he had pretty much kept Vin close to town for weeks. It wasn't that Vin didn't want his company, he just wanted time to himself. In fact, he needed it just as surely as he needed to breathe. Letting the tracker do patrols alone was the easiest way to give the shy young man with the wild heart what he needed. Chris could show up for patrol, and he knew the tracker would not protest but before long Vin would feel the need to escape and then it would be for longer than a day. For Chris, that was far worse than Vin doing solitary patrols. At least with patrols he was home the same night. When Vin took off for the wilderness, sometimes for days, Chris worried constantly until he returned.
"Which way you headed?" Chris asked and the tracker smiled knowing Chris had understood immediately.
"Crooked Creek, Dawson's gully and home over Bell's ridge" Vin replied smiling at the concern in Chris' eyes that was now obvious to him.
Stop fussing, Vin's look asserted.
Ain't fussing, the return look challenged.
"Don't start any trouble without me" Vin teased as he stood up.
"I never do" Chris replied solemnly.
"But you sure do finish it, pard" Buck interrupted hearing the last part of their conversation. Laughing, Buck slapped Chris on the back lightly, amused as his own humour. "About tomorrow Chris. How about you and me go and see if the McAllister family have settled into their new ranch OK?" Bucked added.
"Check on Joe McAllister or his two daughters?" Chris replied suspiciously.
"He has daughters?" Buck asked with mock surprise.
Chris sighed and then looked up to his best friend. You're gonna leave me with Buck? Not nice Vin!
Vin chuckled, wished his friends goodnight and left the saloon.
Half an hour later, Harry Cray, finished his last drink and left the saloon. Nobody noticed.
Cray retrieved his few things from the boarding house and made his way to the livery. Saddling his horse, he quietly exited and headed north. When he had successfully got clear of the town undetected, he smiled. The boss was going to be very happy with him.
+ + + + + + +
The three men sat in silence around a campfire just north of Four Corners. Tom Farlow looked over at his long time partner, Gus Keegan, who was trying to find a more comfortable way to sit, wincing slightly as he moved. Farlow knew how his friend felt, his back ached as well. They were too old for this. They had gotten used to their comfortable ranches with their comfortable lifestyles and young ranch hands to do the hard work for them. But that had changed recently and now the two men had been forced back into their previous profession to accommodate that change. Farlow sighed. And mostly, it was all his fault and Gus made sure he kept reminding him of that fact. But Farlow's silent pensiveness tonight was due to the fact that they were camped outside Four Corners for reasons he didn't agree with. So far though, Farlow had been unable to change Keegan's mind.
Farlow gaze moved to the other man at their camp. Jake Rainey didn't look uncomfortable, nor did he have any aches or pains. At 23, Rainey was half the age of Farlow and Keegan and sometimes the rapid movements and enthusiasm of the younger man got on Farlow's nerves. But Keegan wanted him along. And Farlow was the first to admit, Rainey had proven to be quite proficient with both handguns and rifle and had been useful on their trip so far.
Farlow tried to move into a more comfortable position himself. It had been a long two months and he was tired. Tired of sleazy towns with their sleazier inhabitants and camping out along trails. It wasn't this hard when he and Gus first started out. Farlow remembered back to when he and Keegan met. Both were bounty hunters and both weren't all that good at it. In fact, Farlow was about to give up and return home to his father's ranch and admit to failure when he and Keegan had crossed paths. They met when they were both after the same bounty. Neither were having any success with their slippery prey and Keegan suggested they work together and split the profits. The plan worked very well. Keegan was a good planner and Farlow was a good shot. From then on they made a reasonable living. In the last few years of their bounty hunting together, Keegan befriended Harry Cray who proved to be invaluable in gathering information on bounties they went after.
The two men accumulated enough money in a decade to both retire 4 years ago, purchasing two small adjoining ranches in Texas. Everything had been going well for them until Farlow discovered a liking for gambling and Keegan's long horn cattle became infected with Texas Fever and he had lost half his herd. Both men's debts had grown until it was blatently clear that without a further injection of funds both would lose their ranches.
Keegan was the first to raise the suggestion that they return to bounty hunting just long enough to raise enough money to save their properties. Cray had continued to work with Keegan on his ranch, so Keegan brought him along. Rainey was another of Keegan's ranch hands who just about begged to be allowed to ride with them. Initially Keegan would not entertain the idea until Rainey showed him how talented he was with weapons.
Farlow had to admit they hadn't done too bad, after being out of the so called 'profession' for 4 years. But the old routine soon fell into place and after two months they had successfully handed in bounties worth $1200. Keegan was all set to go home. The money was enough to get them out of trouble. However, that changed the minute Keegan saw the wanted poster for Vin Tanner. Even when they learned that Tanner was holed up successfully in the town of Four Corners with 6 rumoured to be dangerous men, notably Chris Larabee, as his friends, Keegan was not deterred.
"So when are we gonna get this guy Gus?" Jake's voice broke Farlow's thoughts.
"Soon, boy, soon" Keegan replied gruffly.
Jake did not even try to hide his impatience and after it was clear Keegan was not going to talk anymore, he got his guns out and starting cleaning them. Farlow looked away. All the kid ever did was clean those damn guns.
Within the hour, all three men had lay down on their bedrolls and prepared for sleep. Suddenly Keegan sat up and reached for his gun. Rainey and Farlow did the same. They all tensed until they heard the familiar owl screech. A few minutes later, Cray rode into camp.
"I thought we weren't meeting til mornin'" Keegan asked before Cray reached their camp.
Cray dismounted, tethered his horse and crouched next to Keegan.
"Found out somethin' interestin'. Thought you'd wanna know" Cray replied.
"Let's hear it" Keegan ordered impatiently.
"Tanner's gonna be out alone tomorrow and I know where he's headed" Cray replied smiling.
Keegan returned the smile and patted Cray on the back.
While Cray reported what he had learned, Keegan listened intently and Farlow knew his last chance was now.
"Gus, can I talk to you? Alone?" Farlow asked when Cray had stopped talking.
Keegan looked disappointedly at him but nodded and moved away from camp. Farlow followed. When they were out of earshot, Rainey could barely see them, but he sensed enough to know this particular bounty was different from the others.
"Hey Harry. What's with this Tanner guy? Why does Gus want 'im so bad" Rainey asked.
Cray looked at the young kid and was tempted to tell him to mind his own business but then shrugged. Kid had a right to know what he was getting into.
"Only know what Farlow told me. Years ago, Gus took this Tanner under his wing. Tanner was about your age maybe younger. He was a good tracker. Kiowas taught him, so Farlow says. Gus showed him bounty huntin' and Tanner picked it up real quick. Farlow reackons he's the best tracker he's ever seen. They made a lot of money together" Cray explained.
"So what happened?" Rainey asked.
"Tanner wanted to go it alone. Gus took it personally" Cray replied shrugging.
+ + + + + + +
"What's the problem now Tom?" Keegan said impatiently.
"I don't like this," Farlow replied.
"So you keep saying."
"We've got enough money. Let's just go home."
"We are going home. Tascosa is on the way home. This will be easy, trust me" Keegan insisted.
"Easy!" Farlow erupted. "Vin Tanner is not going to be easy".
"I know Tanner. I know how he thinks" Keegan replied, his anger rising. "Hell, I taught him. And he's gonna be alone" he added arrogantly.
"What about his friends? We shouldn't be pissing off Chris Larabee."
"We'll be long gone before his friends can find us. And once we're in Texas, the law's on our side. Tanner's a wanted man remember?"
"You wanna know what I remember, Gus. I remember Tanner being pretty dangerous himself. If we screw this up, he'll kill us," Farlow said vehemently.
Keegan placed his hands on Farlow's shoulders. "Tom. I'm tellin' ya'. This will be the easiest $500 we'll ever make".
"I dunno, Gus. I got a bad feeling."
Keegan snorted. "You've always got a bad feeling Tom" Keegan chuckled as he moved back to camp.
Farlow breathed in deeply as he watched Keegan walk away. "I've gotta bad feeling," he muttered to himself.
+ + + + + + +
The next morning just after dawn, Vin joined Josiah and Nathan for breakfast.
"How'd you get Chris to let you ride out alone?" Nathan asked grinning.
"Caught him in a good mood 'spose" Vin replied smiling.
"Well, make sure you're back on time. Man's worse than a grizzly missing it's cub when you ain't around," Nathan replied while Josiah chuckled.
Vin threw him a 'don't know what you're talking about' look then finished his meal and stood up. "Don't work too hard boys. I'll see you tonight" he told them.
Nathan watched as Vin walked away. "Remind me, Josiah. How did we get roped into this job again?"
"Now brother Nate, you know John Seymour is having trouble running his farm with a broken leg. Besides, his baby girl looked poorly yesterday. I'd like you to have a look at her" Josiah replied.
"Alright. Alright!" Nathan protested good naturedly, "but all day?"
+ + + + + + +
Vin nudged Peso slightly and the big black picked up the pace, intuitively sensing his master's need to escape. At the first ridge, Vin drew Peso to a stop and looked back at the township of Four Corners in the distance. Drawing a big breath, then exhaling slowly Vin began to feel the tension flowing out of him. He didn't get many opportunities to get away alone especially since Eli Joe and his fake marshals had tried to hang him over a month ago. Since then, Chris hardly let him out alone at all, but today he had managed it and he intended to make the most of it.
Smiling, he nudged Peso towards Crooked Creek. He remembered Nathan's words that morning. It wasn't the first time he had heard about how Chris behaved when he was not in town. And he was sure Nathan's description was an apt one. And whilst he didn't envy his friends who had to put up with Chris's anxious moods when he wasn't around, deep down he really liked the idea that Chris cared so much. He had been alone for most of his life and was unaccustomed to anyone wanting to protect him with such devotion. Letting Chris and the others penetrate the hard wall he had painstakingly put up over the years had been extremely difficult for him at first. Now he couldn't imagine life without his 6 friends or his home in Four Corners. Just getting used to spending so much time in town had been his first big accomplishment. He was genuinely surprised how well he had adapted. The need to get away was less now than in the beginning and he supposed that was a good thing. Yep. Definitely a good thing. Four Corners was home. Buck, JD, Nathan, Josiah, Ezra and especially Chris were his family. Definitely a good thing.
Vin smiled again. But with all those brothers, it was good to get some time alone occasionally. Out here, he could think clearly, breathe properly, be completely free. He knew his friends couldn't entirely understand this need to be alone in the wilderness but they fully respected his desire to do so. They accepted him the way he was and that meant a lot to Vin Tanner.
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