At daybreak the next day, Josiah, JD and Nathan had returned to Crooked Creek. Only this time the young Comanche was with them.
Chanu had quickly determined the tracks and reported his findings to the three peacekeepers.
"Your friend met with 4 riders. They lead him towards the mountains," Chanu explained.
"Towards Texas" Nathan added frowning.
"Your other friends. They follow some hours later. They are tracking," Chanu continued.
"Tracking!" JD interrupted not concealing his surprise. "There must be some mistake. Only Vin can track," the sherriff explained to Chanu.
Chanu shrugged. "They are tracking." Turning to Josiah he added "We must hurry, they are many hours ahead."
"Move as quickly as you need to, my friend. We shall not slow you down" the ex-preacher replied vehemently.
+ + + + + + +
Keegan had set out early the next day as well. Leading Vin by Peso's reins again, he resumed the quick pace of the previous day. A few hours after dawn, they reached a small creek that only appeared 6-8 inches deep. Drawing his group into single file, Keegan led the horses through the shallow water for some twenty minutes before leaving the creek and continuing south.
Vin grimaced inwardly. He had actually taught Keegan this particular means of avoiding would be pursuers. The tracker knew that yesterday when they reached the grasslands that Keegan had chosen this particular route because it was difficult to track. Now he was taking no chances by travelling a short distance through water.
Vin sighed. Chris and the others would never find him now. He was on his own. The tracker shot a glance at Farlow. Maybe not.
He couldn't help but wonder how Chris had handled his non-appearance back at Four Corners last night. Or maybe he should be more worried about how the rest of the 7 handled Chris last night, he thought wryly. He could picture Larabee's bad mood, when it became apparent the tracker would not be returning. Buck would then automatically take on the dangerous role of trying to placate his oldest friend, which would unfortunately only serve to worry the gunfighter more. Chris would have the rest of the 7 ready to ride out at dawn but without their tracker, progress would be slow if any, leaving Larabee frustrated, anxious and more than anything else, dangerous. No, Vin did not envy his friends, which is why he had to somehow escape from Keegan and return to his 'family' before the dark gunfighter erupted and created a path of destruction, that even Buck would be unable to halt.
His thoughts were interrupted when Keegan announced they were stopping for a break.
Keegan ordered Rainey to cover the tracker, then motioned to Farlow to walk with him. Vin watched closely as Keegan and Farlow moved away. Although, Rainey was supposed to be covering him, the young man's gaze kept looking over to the two men before returning to watch Vin. Rainey and Cray had obviously sensed the growing tension between the two long-time friends and each knew a confrontation was inevitable.
"You and Tanner have a interestin' talk?" Keegan snapped at his friend.
"It was more than that" Farlow replied pointedly.
"What do you mean?"
"We talked about the Baskin bounty. You remember that kid, don't you Gus?" Farlow replied directly. He could see no reason to wait. He wanted answers now.
"What the hell has that got do with anything?" Keegan sneered.
"That was the last bounty you and Vin brought in before the kid took off on his own" Farlow pushed.
"Why did Baskin have to die?" Farlow asked, watching Keegan intently.
"He was trying to escape" Keegan frowned "I told you that."
"That all Gus? No other reason?" Farlow quizzed.
Keegan shook his head with disgust. "Don't you see what he's trying to do Tom?" he replied, lowering his voice. "You already feel bad that we're taking Tanner in. He's telling you whatever it takes to get you to help him. Why can't you see that?" Keegan added angrily.
"No. It's more than that!" Farlow claimed.
"No it's not! Tanner knows he's gonna hang. He's desperate" Keegan stressed angrily.
Farlow wavered. Keegan was starting to make sense and he was becoming confused.
"How many bounties have we brought in? How many stories we heard? Hundreds?" Keegan continued, knowing Farlow was becoming unsure of himself.
"Vin left because of this Baskin" Farlow said, but his tone was now less convincing.
"Tanner left because he got greedy. Wouldn't be surprised if that's why he's got a price on his own head" Keegan offered.
"No. Not Vin" Farlow replied softly, shaking his head.
"That's how you wanna remember him," Keegan replied. Stepping closer to Farlow, Keegan put his hand on Farlow's shoulder. "You always had a soft spot for that kid. But that kid is a man now and he's a wanted man. We don't know him anymore!" Keegan added persuasively.
"Why did you leave me in town when you went after Baskin?" Farlow asked, still grappling with his thoughts.
"You were still sick, remember. I thought I would cut you a break!" Keegan replied.
Farlow looked even less sure. Keegan sighed and shook his head with disappointed.
"What about me Tom? We've been friends for more than 10 years. Partners. I helped you when you were gonna lose your ranch. Don't I deserve your trust?" Keegan asked, submitting Farlow to an unwavering stare.
Farlow held Keegan's look and gave in. "Yeah Gus, you do" he eventually replied.
"I know this is hard for you. You really liked this kid. I remember. But he broke the law. Not us. And we need this money for our future. Once we leave Tascosa and head for home, things will be better. They will." Keegan finished.
Farlow nodded slightly and Keegan noted with satisfaction that for the time being, Farlow was siding with him.
Like, Rainey and Cray, Vin had not taken his eyes off the two men who were obviously arguing a short distance from them. When the argument changed from raised voices to soft low tones, Vin knew that Keegan was successfully winning Farlow back. Knowing there may not be another opportunity today, the tracker moved quickly. Vin knocked Cray to the ground before the older man had time to respond and turning swiftly, tried to grab the rifle out of Rainey's hands. Rainey reacted angrily and the two men fell to the ground and struggled to gain control of the rifle. The tracker was at a distinct disadvantage with his wrists still bound, but was using his larger frame and strength to overcome Rainey.
Keegan and Farlow started running across the short distance to the two struggling men, while Cray got to his feet and moved up behind the tracker. Grabbing Tanner tightly, he managed to pull the tracker off Rainey until Tanner turned furiously and shouldered the old cowhand to the ground again. When Vin turned back to Rainey, the younger man had recovered and had his rifle trained on him.
Recognising Rainey was about to shoot, Keegan roared "Don't shoot! I want 'im to hang!". Rainey heard the command and breathed deeply, trying to control his desire to kill the tracker. Keeping his rifle firmly trained on Vin, he glared fiercely until Keegan reached them a few seconds later.
Without saying anything further, Keegan viciously hit Vin in the stomach with his rifle, forcing the tracker to his knees. He then brought the rifle butt down hard across Tanner's head, causing him to collapse.
"No! Gus!" Farlow yelled, reaching Keegan and stopping him from bringing the rifle down again.
The last thing Vin saw before darkness overcame him was Keegan's snarling face overhead.
+ + + + + + +
JD was tired. He was used to more sleep than he'd got the previous night. He was worried about Vin. He was worried about Buck. Hell he was worried about all of them. Chanu had not been exaggerating when he had informed them they had to move quickly. How they could keep up this pace, while the Comanche still tracked, amazed the young man.
JD glanced as his companions. If he was tired then Josiah and Nathan must be feeling it as well he decided. However, after glancing at both of them, JD determined if they were tired, they were hiding it beneath unyielding expressions.
Not long before noon, Chanu stopped and told them to rest while he scouted ahead. The relieved trio, dismounted, stretched and drank from their canteens.
30 minutes later Chanu returned.
"The tracks have forked. Your friends go the wrong way" Chanu reported.
"You mean Chris has lost Vin's trail?" Nathan confirmed.
"What we do now?" JD asked anxiously. It was imperative to the young sherriff that Chris be leading them when they caught up to Vin. The young man had no doubt that with Chris commanding their group, his tracker friend would be released.
"Keep heading this way towards the mountains" the young Comanche replied, pointing south-east. "I will find your friends and bring them to you."
"And what if we catch up to Vin?" JD asked.
"Then we get Vin back and we find Chris" Nathan avowed.
Chanu shook his head. "They are too far ahead. Maybe tomorrow."
"When do you think you'll make it back, my friend" Josiah asked.
Chanu considered carefully, allowing for the time and distance he had to travel.
"How you gonna find us in the dark?" JD asked incredulously.
"I will find you" Chanu replied with no doubt.
+ + + + + + +
Farlow checked Vin's head wound again. The tracker still appeared groggy and obviously had trouble focussing on him.
"Take another drink, Vin" Farlow said softly, while he held the canteen to Vin's lips.
Vin drank without speaking and concentrated on his surroundings. He realised it was close to dark, which meant that he had been out for several hours.
"Where are we?" Vin asked Farlow, his speech slightly slurred.
"Still heading for Texas" was the grim reply.
Vin grimaced and touched his head gingerly.
"Hurt much?" Farlow asked concerned.
"I'll let you have some whiskey later. Might help you sleep." The older man replied, trying to console his former friend.
"What does it matter to you?" Vin retorted.
"Don't like seeing you like this" Farlow whispered sincerely
"Figure you won't be around then, when they hang me?" the tracked replied scornfully.
Farlow winced. "Vin, I'm sorry. But there's nothing I can do"
Vin's blue eyes bore into Farlow's, causing the older man to look away with mounting torment. Tom Farlow knew, at that moment, that allowing Vin Tanner to hang would haunt him the rest of his life.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra looked with dismay at their dinner of biscuits and coffee. They were down to their last supplies. Tomorrow they would be forced to find some sort of wildlife to consume. Ezra didn't know what was worse. Biscuits or the prospect of having to hunt for food. The gambler grimaced at the nauseous thought of having to prepare such feral creature for consumption.
Dinner had been a quiet affair again. Tonight, however, they were all exhausted and nobody was bothering to hide it.
All afternoon, Ezra and Buck had followed Chris, quietly keeping up with the pace he'd set. Larabee had said nothing all afternoon. The gambler had watched the rage building in the gunfighter all day and couldn't help but admire Chris' control over the fierce emotion. However, Ezra knew, that control would break once they caught up with Vin and he was unequivocally thankful that it would be the tracker's captors and not he that would have to face Larabee's wrath. Ezra exchanged glances with Buck and realised the big man was having similar thoughts. Ezra sighed. No doubt about it, when they caught up with their loyal tracker, this was going to turn ugly.
The silence continued. Ezra took out his cards and begun shuffling them despite the daggers he received from Larabee.
Suddenly, there was a low growl from the darkness behind Buck. All three men stood, drew their weapons and faced the direction the growl emanated from. The seconds ticked by but nothing more was heard.
"I have come to take you to your friends" a voice disturbed the silence behind them.
All three swiftly turned around to face their would be attacker.
Chanu faced the three men without flinching.
"Shit!" Buck yelled, as Chris quickly brought his hand down upon Buck's arm to prevent him from shooting.
"Hold your fire, Ezra!" Larabee ordered as he recognised the young Comanche.
"Chanu?" he said softly.
Chanu nodded. "Come. I take you to your friends"
"You found Vin?" Chris asked anxiously, daring to believe that Vin was no longer in danger, but safe and well.
"No. Not yet. Come now. We meet the others."
"Others. You mean the kid's out here?" Buck asked protectively, his uncontrollable urge to protect JD surfacing.
Chanu nodded. "We waste time" the Comanche stated.
"Not that I doubt your obviously impressive skills my young native friend, but how do propose to accomplish the daunting task of finding our associates in this blackness?" the gambler asked suspiciously. He didn't fancy following the Indian anywhere.
Chanu looked to Larabee frowning.
"He means. How do we find the others in the dark?" Chris translated.
"The moon will return shortly" Chanu replied.
Buck and Chris turned and started packing up immediately.
"Nothing I like more than a moonlight ride" the gambler drawled sarcastically.
+ + + + + + +
All afternoon, Josiah, Nathan and JD made their way in the direction that Chanu had instructed. Finding a suitable site to camp, Josiah used the remaining light to successfully hunt two rabbits and kill one rattler.
After dinner, JD had become restless again and eventually stood up and began pacing. Josiah and Nathan said nothing for a few minutes, then the normally placid healer's patience broke.
"Why don't you sit down JD? Could be a long night." Nathan said.
"It helps if I move around Nathan" JD replied.
"Well it ain't helping me" the healer snapped.
JD turned and faced his companions. Sighing, he compromised by not pacing, but he continued to stand.
"It's been dark for hours. Where are they?" JD griped.
"They will arrive when they get here" Josiah said slowly.
JD rolled his eyes and threw his hands up. "I know that Josiah" the young man said irritably. "It's just that everything will be better when we're all together. You know what I mean? I don't like it when we're all......separated!"
Josiah and Nathan exchanged looks and smiled.
"We know what you mean JD," Nathan replied warmly, his irritation lost.
"And Buck. Well... he needs me. He may not say it... but I know he needs me" JD said emphatically.
"More like you need me, kid" a voice boomed from the darkness.
JD snapped around and drew his gun whilst Nathan and Josiah did the same.
"Buck?" JD called tentatively.
"Yeah, it's me kid" the voice replied.
JD turned and beamed at Josiah and Nathan. Less than a minute later Chanu led Chris, Buck and Ezra into their camp.
"Buck! Are you alright?" JD cried.
"Yeah, We're just tired is all" Buck replied exhaustedly.
"Tired would be an understatement, Mr Wilmington" Ezra retorted irritably.
Nathan approached Chris warily as he dismounted.
"How you doin' Chris?" the healer asked carefully.
"I'm fine, Nathan" Chris responded unemotionally.
You sure don't look fine, Nathan wanted to add but he kept his observations to himself. While they were all worried about Vin's safety, the healer knew the gunfighter was seething with an array of fierce and homicidal emotions. Nathan prayed they found the tracker safe and well.
"I'll tend to your horse Chris. Help yourself to coffee" Nathan offered.
"Thanks Nathan" Chris replied with true appreciation.
An hour later, the talk had died down, JD and Ezra were already sleeping, when Chanu returned from scouting.
"Nothing" the young Comanche reported to Larabee as the gunfighter stood as they met.
"Good" Chris replied.
"Chanu" he added as the Indian turned to leave. Chanu faced Larabee. "I wanna thank you. For helping us" the gunfighter told him. Chanu acknowledged his words with a nod and turned and set up place for himself on the other side of the sleeping gambler. Across camp, Nathan and Josiah allowed themselves small smiles as the Comanche settled in beside Ezra. They both couldn't wait to see Ezra's face when he found out that Chanu had slept next to him.
Chris walked the short distance back to Buck, Nathan and Josiah.
"We should turn in. We probably gonna have an early start" the man in black ordered softly.
The other three men nodded in agreement and started to make themselves comfortable.
"Josiah?" Chris said quietly.
Josiah stopped and looked at his fearful friend.
"Asking Chanu for help. Good plan....... Thank you." Chris told the ex-preacher.
Josiah smiled at their leader. "Anytime brother" he rumbled.
+ + + + + + +
The next day, Vin was regretting his hasty attempt to secure his release. His head throbbed unmercifully and he still had trouble focussing. The hot sun was not helping his condition and any concentration he had left was used to remain upright on Peso.
The only reprieve to this otherwise shitty day, was the fact that Keegan had slowed the pace considerably. After putting as many miles between them and Four Corners as possible and using a few tricks to make tracking difficult, Keegan was obviously confident none of the tracker's friends would be putting in an appearance.
Vin exhaled deeply. He had to admit Keegan was probably right. Chris had to make up more than a day's travelling in addition to having no tracker. Faced with these options, Vin knew the man in black would ride ahead and try and cut them off before they reached Tascosa. Vin just had to wait patiently until then because the tracker knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that Chris and the others would come for him.
Farlow was still watching Vin with obvious concern. Of course, it would help if Farlow felt guilty enough to help him slip off quietly. For now though, it would help if he could only get through this day.
+ + + + + + +
Early the next day, Chanu dismounted near a shallow creek. Taking advantage of the brief break, the rest of the 7 dismounted and tended to their personal needs.
They had risen before dawn so that they were packed up and ready to move out at first light. As Nathan suspected, Ezra was appalled that Chanu had slept so close to him for the night, but tried to mask his concerns unsuccessfully, causing chuckles around the camp. The brief levity of the situation had allowed everyone, except Chris, a break from the tension. Even Chanu seemed amused at the gambler's agitation.
Now they waited somewhat impatiently for Chanu's report.
The young Comanche had disappeared for a few minutes but now returned to address Chris and the group.
"They ride, using the creek to hide their tracks"
"Sneaky bastards" Buck muttered.
"Can you follow them" Chris asked Chanu.
"Yes. But it will be slow. We need to find their tracks again. If we use your tracker, we could make up some time" Chanu suggested.
"Our tracker" JD queried. "Vin's our tracker!" he added irritably.
"Actually we do have another tracker JD" Buck announced grinning.
Walking to stand next to Ezra, who had begun to look particularly unimpressed, Buck affectionately draped his arm across Ezra's shoulders. The gambler reacted immediately by removing Buck's arm with animosity and flashed the ladies man a warning glance.
Buck ignored Ezra's attempt at intimidation. "Vin's been teaching Ezra how to track. That's how we were able to follow Vin as long as we did" Buck told them, relishing the opportunity to repay Ezra for his derogatory remarks regarding his attempts to win Inez's favour.
Like Chris and Buck the day before, it was Josiah, Nathan and JD's turn to look bewildered causing Ezra to mutter obscenities under his breath.
"Ain't that right Ez?" Buck continued, enjoying the gambler's discomfort enormously.
"You're kiddin'? Right Buck?" JD asked increduously.
"You will pay for this, Mr Wilmington" Ezra threatened.
"That's enough" Chris' growl brought the group back to a serious mood. "Ezra, go with Chanu" he ordered.
"Mr Larabee, you know my new found skills are limited to...."
"Just do it!" Larabee growled.
"I will endeavour to carry forth your orders to the best of my ability" the gambler retorted as he made his way to Chaucer and mounted him. Nudging his horse towards Chanu, he added "What would you like me to do?".
Chanu nodded towards the creek. "This way" he replied.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra and Chanu each took one side of the creek and started moving forward searching for tracks. With his more practiced eye, Chanu was able to move ahead of Ezra within a few minutes and within 5 minutes was out of sight. Ezra kept his attention to the task at hand, knowing that the swift retrieval of their friend may rest with him. Thankfully, Chris had kept the others back a short distance and Ezra appreciated it.
Half an hour later, Ezra had not seen anything remotely like tracks and was therefore relieved when Chanu rode in fast, pulling his horse to a stop on the opposite side of the creek. The gambler nudged Chaucer across the creek towards Chanu, while the rest of the 7 moved their horses quickly to intercept Chanu and Ezra.
"I found their tracks" Chanu reported and swung his horse around and led the group back to where he had discovered the tracks.
Two hours later, Chanu led them to an abandoned campsite.
"This is where they stopped last night?" Chris asked.
Chanu nodded. "They have slowed" the Comanche reported.
"How far are they ahead?" Chris queried.
Chris nodded appreciatively. "10 minutes. Then we leave." The man in black told the rest of the 7.
+ + + + + + +
Keegan brought his horse to a stop as he heard Rainey riding in fast. Over the last day and a half, he had regularly sent Cray or Rainey backtracking to ensure that they were not being followed.
Rainey pulled his reins hard and his horse came to abrupt stop next to Keegan causing Keegan's horse and Peso to move nervously.
"Someone's coming up behind us" Rainey reported.
"How many?" Keegan barked.
"Couple of hours. Maybe sooner. They're moving quick" Rainey replied.
"It's gotta be Larabee, Gus" Farlow broke in.
"Maybe" Keegan replied thoughtfully.
Farlow moved his horse closer to Keegan. "What do you mean 'maybe'" he asked increduously.
"It means maybe" Keegan retorted. Turning to Rainey he asked "What did they look like?"
"They were a long way away, Gus, even with the spyglass, it was difficult to make out" Rainey tried explaining.
"Just tell us what you saw, boy!" Keegan snapped.
"Seven men. One had a red coat, one was dressed all in black.... one had a funny hat and one was a black man" Rainey recalled.
"Sounds like Larabee's gang boss" Cray admitted.
"And it looked like they were being led by an indian" Rainey added.
"Damn it" Keegan cursed.
"What are we gonna do Gus?" Rainey asked worriedly.
"Let me think boy" Keegang snapped with annoyance.
"Let him go Gus" Farlow said firmly.
"Are you crazy?" Keegan erupted.
"Me? Crazy? You wanna face Larabee and six guns? I say, we leave Tanner here and make a run for it."
"No!" Keegan replied vehemently.
Farlow ignored his friend's response and turned to Tanner. "Think you can convince Larabee to leave us be Vin?"
Vin had unemotionally watched the conversation unfold. He had successfully hid his surprise at the descriptions Rainey provided. No doubt it was Chris and the others and the tracker managed to hide his astonishment. How the hell had they caught up so quick. But now Farlow was waiting for a reply. Vin had to choose his words carefully. But before he could answer Farlow, Keegan reached over and grabbed Farlow's arm.
"I said No!" the bigger man hissed maliciously.
Farlow eyes narrowed and the normally easy-going rancher became angry. "I told you this would come back and scorch our asses, you arrogant sonofabitch!" he sneered.
Drawing his weapon, Keegan snarled "Shut up Tom." Farlow glared, then backed down. Realising Farlow's submission, Keegan reholstered his weapon.
"We split up. I'll take Tanner and head for the ridge, the rest of you head south west. We'll meet in Benton in two days" Keegan ordered.
"Not a chance Gus" Farlow replied.
"I make the decisions here" Keegan warned.
"I know what you're up to. Is Tanner gonna get shot while escaping as well?" Farlow retorted, knowing full well he was now treading on dangerous ground.
"Will you shut up" Keegan barked.
"You'll make better time if he's dead right Gus?" Farlow pushed.
"Tom, I'm warning you...." Keegan growled.
"You took $1000 to kill Baskin, you'd have no trouble killing him for $500" Farlow added contemptuously.
Keegan reacted viciously, striking Farlow with a blow to the chest. The smaller man lost his balance and fell off his horse. Drawing his weapon again, Keegan aimed it at the stunned man on the ground.
"Keegan! No!" Tanner yelled nudging Peso forward with his knees. The movement caused Keegan's attention to be diverted from Farlow to Tanner.
"Don't give me an excuse, Tanner!" Keegan threatened. The retired bounty hunter and the tracker glared at each other before Keegan returned his attention to Farlow.
"I've told you what to do! Now ride" he ordered his friend.
"I dunno Gus, Tom makes sense. We oughta stick together" Rainey interrupted nervously.
"What would you know, Boy?" Keegan sneered. What the hell was happening. First Farlow and now Rainey?
"I ain't a boy" Rainey said resolutely.
"We ain't leaving Gus" Farlow added.
Keegan looked with disgust at Rainey and Farlow's determined expressions. Turning to his taciturn ranch hand, Keegan saw Cray shrug. Swearing under his breath, Keegan gave in to the inevitable.
"Damn you Tom" Keegan seethed. Turning his horse, he lead the way still gripping Peso's reins, Cray followed him. Rainey waited until Farlow had remounted and they too rode out.
The tracker held onto his pommel as Keegan broke the horses into a canter. He had successfully remained calm during this altercation between Keegan and Farlow, but inwardly he was stunned. How the hell did Chris and the others catch up so fast? The Indian Rainey mentioned had to be from the reservation. So Ezra had kept his secret and Chris had found himself another tracker after all. Not bad, Chris, not bad at all! Now that Chris was so close, Vin prepared to wait until Larabee made the first move. Which should be very soon, Vin thought, knowing the gunfighter so well.
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