Disclaimer: The don't belong to me I have no rights, but there are people out there that have them... I'm not making money. This is just for fun (a real great one, btw). Okay, I said it.
Thanks: To Nancy. To everybody who encourages me to keep writing. To Tarlan and Kris who beta read this and are really nice because this time I was in a hurry.
Notes: Probably there are stories similar to this, but I needed to hurt Vin a little because this story is dedicated to Winter and Judy for their Birthdays... Happy Birthday girls!!! Hope you like it.
Feedback is really appreciated. Drop me a line, please.
Size: Approx 89K
JD walked out of the jail and headed to the saloon. He was glad. It was a fine day with not a lot of work to do, nice weather, a more than nice girl who would go with him for a walk that afternoon... He was walking along thinking about Casey. When he reached the batwing doors, he changed his mind about his destination and headed to Vin's wagon. He had seen the tracker, apparently very busy; a fact that awoke his curiosity.
What was the tracker dealing with? He saw him carrying a big parcel of clothes wrapped up in a big sheet. At least that was what it seemed from where he was standing, and he really wanted to know what was up with the quiet and mysterious man. He reached Vin's wagon just at the moment when the longhaired man rested the parcel on the ground and got into the place he considered his home.
"Hey Vin, what are you doing?"
"Huh?" the tracker was really concentrating on his task. He hadn't even seen the young sheriff coming.
"Nothing important," he said pulling his hat off his head and drying the spots of sweat that had appeared on his forehead and in his hairline. He rested his back against the back entrance of his 'home', placing both hands on the wood behind him.
"I've decided it was time for a laundry day. Mrs. Potter has agreed to wash my clothes 'cause I helped her with some shelves that were giving her problems."
"You know..." JD began thoughtfully, "if Ezra discovers this, he is going to give you a hard time, so will Buck."
"Why Buck?" Vin didn't follow younger man's path of thoughts.
"I know him... I can imagine him telling you that you don't get women's attention because you don't do your laundry often enough, and because of that damned buckskin coat you own.
Vin was really astonished. JD had woken up in a really clever frame of mind that morning. The sheriff could see the puzzled look on the ex bounty hunter's face.
"I've been thinking this morning. I'm going for a walk with Casey this afternoon and I have to have an answer to all the possible mocks Buck can make about the whole situation. I need to be quicker than him."
"I reckon you're going to have them." Vin stated with an amused tone in his Texan drawl.
"I hope so. Anyway, I can come with you to Mrs. Potter, if you want."
"'kay." Vin leaned and picked up the parcel he had left on the floor next to the wagon.
"I just hope I don't dirty these clothes too much," he said, pointing at the shirt he wore, " these are the only ones I have left right now." He kept on heading to Mrs. Potter's store, with JD walking by his side.
"I don't suppose you do." JD said.
+ + + + + + +
Chris, Nathan and Josiah were seated at the usual table the seven peacekeepers tended to occupy. Nathan and Josiah were busy with their breakfast while Chris was busy with just a steaming cup of coffee he held between his hands.
Ezra was still involved in a poker game that had begun late last night.
Nathan shook his head. How that man could keep himself awake all night with all his senses alert after all that time was a mystery to him. He had learned to keep his mouth shut about that issue. The discussion about this matter was never-ending. Nathan realized he would never understand everything related to the Southerner. He figured it was one of those inexplicable things in life. He stared at that table for a while then faced his steaming cup of coffee and shook his head lightly.
Josiah saw his dark friend and shook his head also, knowing what Nathan was thinking about.
After a moment of shared silence, Buck rushed into the saloon with the biggest grin possible plastered on his face.
Chris raised his head from the cup of coffee and let out a chuckle. In fact Josiah and Nathan each let out mischievous laughs as well.
Buck collapsed, with the widest grin still on his face, on a chair next to Josiah whose gaze rested for a second on the mustached man before letting out a chuckle.
"I can see brother Buck had a really interesting date last night." Josiah laughed at the same time that he slapped the ladies' man on the back when Buck reached the table.
"Oh man, you can bet all the whisky you can drink in a month it was." Buck answered, stretching his legs in front of him and folding his arms on the back of his head. "That woman is so passionate. I'm exhausted. Miss Lucy Bell is insatiable and the sweetest female on this side of the Río Grande. She's waiting for me tonight," he said raising one of his brows expecting admiration from the rest of the men around the table.
"You know you have quite a busy day ahead, Buck... There is a cougar out there waiting to be hunted. It's dangerous, that animal is stalking the town surroundings." Nathan was the voice of the conscience for all of them.
"Yep, but don't worry, I have everything planned. Ezra and me will leave in a while for patrol. When I return I'll have enough time for a bath, a quick dinner and a lot of... you know what I mean..." he answered mischievously.
Chris, who was still drinking his coffee, found Buck's words quite amusing. One of the corners of his mouth was up in a little smile. "You're incorrigible, Buck." Chris muttered.
Buck laughed out loud, " I know. But you love me anyway."
"Well gentlemen, thank you for the time you spent at this game of chance. I assure you I've been more than pleased with your company and the challenge it had supposed. You will be welcome to try to recuperate your monetary goods. I will be immensely interested in it." Ezra was sweeping the table very carefully with the money on it and then began to fold the bills very carefully, while the coins went into a small velvet bag.
After having finished his task. Ezra walked towards the table his friends occupied.
"Morning gentleman." He took a seat and turned his head looking for Inez. "I am in urgent need of sustenance. I'm at the edge of starvation."
"I don't understand how you're still on your feet, Ez. Do you know you have patrol right now? The cougar. Remember?" Nathan knew he should have kept those thoughts to himself, but he couldn't.
"Mr. Jackson, I am aware your only concern is with my health, I thank you and assure you I am completely fine. A night without rest is not a hardship for me."
Inez had seen that the gambler was looking for her so she approached the table graciously.
"Good morning, Señor Ezra. Do you want the special dish as usual?" Inez said with a nice smile on her face as she leaned a little toward the Southerner.
"Of course my dear. I would never lose the opportunity of tasting such a gastronomic miracle."
Inez's puzzled gesture, made him to rephrase his last sentence, "I wanted to say you cook like an angel, my dear."
Inez blushed and Buck sent him a scolding look. Inez left the table and went into the kitchen at the end of the saloon.
After she left, Buck couldn't wait... "Jeez, Ez, I thought you were my friend," a hint of apparent hurt sounded in the ladies man's voice.
Ezra was leaning on the back of the chair with his legs stretched in front of him under the table. He couldn't hide a yawn. "I have no idea what are you talking about, Mr. Wilmington."
"Of course you do. I don't have a chance with Inez if you keep using those fancy words of yours, trying to flatter her."
"Mr. Wilmington, Buck... Don't mistake manners with adulation." Buck shook his head in disbelief.
"I don't, but tell it to her." He added waving his hand in the kitchen direction and letting out a sigh of resignation.
+ + + + + + +
"Thank you Mrs. Potter. You know you don't have to do it."
"Don't worry Mr. Tanner. It's no trouble at all. You helped me with the shelves in the store, so this is the least I can do to make that up to you. You wait and see, your clothes will be as good as new." Vin blushed a little.
JD kept himself from letting out a laugh. How can Vin be so shy about this kind of thing?
Mrs. Potter turned to face the young sheriff.
"And you young man... if you come here and help me on another occasion, you can get your clothes as clean as Vin's. You'll like to look good for your girlfriend."
Now JD was embarrassed as well. Not only because she had mentioned Casey, but for the image of that woman carefully looking through all his clothes.
"Yeah, ma'am." He managed to say.
Vin stretched his arm and placing it around JD's shoulders, he pulled the young man toward him.
"Come on, JD we must find the others. Thanks again, Mrs. Potter."
"You're more than welcome."
Both men left the store. JD took his hat off of his head and shook off the dust of it against his thigh. "I think I ain't going to allow her to wash my clothes."
Vin put his thumb into his belt and laughed briefly. "Don't worry kid it's not an obligation, she just offered her help."
"Maybe, I'll think about it."
The youngest members of the Seven walked to the saloon, where they supposed they would find the rest of the Four Corners hired peacekeepers.
Vin and JD pushed the swinging doors at the same time, stepped into the saloon and headed directly to their table. There were two seats free, for the two men that had just arrived.
Just when they reached the table a young black boy rushed between the two men and stopped between Nathan and Josiah.
"Mr. Jackson, Mr. Sanchez. It's time, the baby's coming." The boy managed to say between breaths.
The rest of the men stared at the ex preacher, the healer and the boy between them with quizzical faces. They didn't know anybody was expecting lately.
Josiah and Nathan were leaving their seats to follow the boy when Buck stopped them in their tracks asking the question that was in all the men's minds.
"Are you going to tell us what's this all about or do we have to guess?" He made an attempt to pinch some of Ezra's meal. The Southerner was waiting for his coffee, but was quick enough to slap him on the hand. Buck winced and waved his hand in the air.
Ezra ignored him.
"It's Ethan's mare that's going to deliver for the first time. Josiah and me thought the animal could have problems, so we told him to warn us when the moment arrived." Nathan explained.
"And it seems it's now." Josiah added.
Vin and JD sat down in the chairs that Josiah and Nathan had occupied until that moment.
Ezra's face showed a smile full of pleasure when he saw Inez approaching the table. He had decided to wait for the coffee.
The beautiful Mexican woman was pouring the steaming black liquid in a cup next to Ezra's meal when Buck tried to remove Ezra's dish from in front the Southerner and placed it in front of him. When he had almost succeed, Ezra managed to pick up the border of the plate at the same time Buck pulled the other side. Ezra let it go with the hope that Buck got himself all stained with his now ruined meal.
This plan didn't work. The strength with which the mustached man had held the plate made him to send the plate farther than in front of him and onto Vin's chest and lap.
Vin jumped up cursing in a low voice and waving his hand over his shirt and pants trying to remove as much food as he could.
JD wasn't sure if it was funny or if it was bad luck. Finally he managed to keep his bearing and not laugh in Vin's face.
"Aw hell, you had to play with food by my side. I don't..." Vin stopped talking. He didn't want all the guys knew he had given all his clothes to Mrs. Potter, and that the only ones left were the ones they had stained while playing like four-year-old children. He turned and left the saloon, heading to his wagon. He could hear both, Buck and Ezra muttering apologizes.
Chris noticed the change in Vin's features when he was talking. At the same time Inez handed Vin a cloth to help him clean off the food as much as possible, letting out apologies in Spanish, before the young man headed out the place.
Chris pulled the chair backwards and walked out, following the tracker who kept cursing in a low voice. Chris didn't know what was happening, but something had disturbed his best friend, and it wasn't the food stain on his clothes.
+ + + + + + +
Vin had reached the back of his wagon and had pulled the shirt out off his body and was trying to clean the stain that decorated the entire front of the shirt.
"Hey Vin, let it be. The stain won't disappear just with that cloth or water. It needs to be washed. It's oil and tomato, they are some of the hard ones in the world of stains; Sarah taught me about it." He tried to lighten the situation.
Vin cast a glare at him. Chris knew it was something else, now for sure.
"What is it?" The older man inquired.
"Damn, Chris. Mrs. Potter offered to wash my clothes and I gave her everything I own but this," he said pointing at the stained shirt." And I hadn't planned on going naked about Four Corners today, cowboy."
Vin was quite exasperated about the situation. Vin, a man that would give everything he owned for not being noticed by the rest of the world.
"It's okay. Everything has a solution. Come on, we'll go to my room and we'll pick up some clothes for you until your clothes are ready." Chris stared at Vin's face. The longhaired man wasn't very convinced yet.
"I don't want to ruin your clothes and give you cause to decide it's time to get that 500 dollars I promised are yours, cowboy." Vin's good mood had returned instantly.
Chris knew Vin had a hell of a temper but was also surprised at how easy going he was for the rest of the time.
Both men headed to Chris's room.
After a while, both men exited the room, both of them dressed in black. Chris' clothes felt a little loose on Vin's frame, but it wasn't that bad a fit nonetheless.
Vin stopped by a mirror hung on the wall in the corridor just at the top of the stairs that they had to walk down to go to the street.
"It isn't so bad, is it? Black ain't a bad fit." Vin's brows came together trying to convince himself about his new image. He felt strange about it.
"Yeah. You look fine, not as handsome as me, but..." Chris let out a chuckle.
Vin elbowed him, grinning while he headed down the stairs. Chris followed him.
"I feel strange, cowboy." Vin whispered as they came close to the rest of the group that was waiting for them.
"I know. But it will be only for a while." the older man answered, nodding firmly.
+ + + + + + +
Buck, Ezra, Josiah and Nathan had their horses ready to go on patrol and to assist with the mare's delivery, while JD was waiting for them to go.
Ezra was impeccably dressed as usual, while Buck had kept the clothes he had on before. He would wait to have his bath until after coming back and before his romantic date before changing.
Josiah and Nathan were already saying goodbye, but they stopped when they saw their remaining friends approaching.
Everybody stared in surprise when they saw Chris and Vin dressed in black. Now they really did look like siblings.
"Well, well, gentlemen. I see it took you quite a lot of time to get into Mr. Larabee's way of dressing. But I'd suggest you choose another fashion model, Mr. Tanner." Ezra's grin showed the two men his gold teeth.
"Hey, what's the matter with my clothes." Chris said offended.
"It lacks a certain choice in the range of colors, Mr. Larabee. However, I don't intend to offend you."
"Of course you don't Ez. You will get into trouble if you do." Chris managed to look serious at the gambler.
Vin raised an eyebrow in amusement. "Now Ez, you saying I don't know how to choose a good outfit..." Vin tried to look furious also, especially as it was the Southerner and Buck's fault that he was dressed that way. "You know it's your fault, don't you?"
"No, no, I mean, I know it's Mr. Wilmington's fault, I was just defending my ruined meal. And don't misunderstand me. It fits you perfectly."
Ezra pulled his hat over his eyes with two fingers, as a salute and as a way to hide his eyes from those two. He was trapped. He commanded his horse to begin his way out of town.
The rest of the group laughed at the situation.
"Gentlemen, I hope we are able to capture such the savage specimen, and then the peace and calm will return again to our esteemed town's surroundings." Changing the subject used to work for the Southerner.
"You'll see Ez, everybody will be astonished when we come back with that damned cougar dead. There will be more than one lady who will be eager to thank me for my courage and daring.
Ezra shook his head in disbelief... "Whatever you say, Mr. Wilmington, everybody is allowed to dream..." the Southerner commented, shaking his head.
Both men rode out of town within minutes.
"We'll be back as soon as possible, Chris." Nathan said.
"It won't take us all day, don't worry. It's a matter of Nature mainly..." Josiah commented. "See you brothers."
And both men left town in the opposite direction taken by Buck and Ezra.
The three remaining men headed to the saloon where they'd be for a while before taking care of their own business.
+ + + + + + +
JD had taken a little nap without having even meant to. Now he would arrive late for his date with Casey.
He ran to the livery passing in front of Vin and Chris who had been sitting outside the saloon and looked asleep also.
Vin pulled his hat off of his face. "Hey kid, you're late. Casey'll be angry."
"I know. See you later." He said placing a hand over his hat so it didn't blow away, rushing into the place to pick up his horse.
Chris pulled his hat off of his face also and found Vin smiling and shaking his head.
"He's caught, isn't he? He has nothing to do but surrender." Chris whispered leaning to Vin's ear.
"I reckon he is and that he's chosen his hunter right."
Both men nodded, crossed their arms over their chests, leaned back against the wall and closed their eyes again. There wasn't any noise on the street and it seemed that everybody was taken with their own business. Although it was true that there were people attending Eagle Bend's Cattle Fair and some others were taking a nap with the ladies doing some sewing.
Some minutes after that, Mary walked by where the two men were, cursing in a low voice with her hands, sleeves and apron stained with black ink.
Chris straightened his back and his eyes met the woman's, "Mary, can I help you with anything?"
"Oh Chris. In fact, yes, you can help me. That old linotype is printing wrong. It'll never make it for tomorrow's edition." The blonde lady was really frustrated.
"Okay, let's go see what the matter is with it."
"Whistle if you need help, cowboy." Vin said, resting his hands on his thighs.
"I'll do it." Chris grinned. He placed his hand on Mary's back inviting her to head for the Clarion office. Both of them walked toward it.
+ + + + + + +
Vin was the only one with nothing to do in that moment, until Mrs. Potter appeared in front of him with a package.
"Vin. I have some of your shirts ready... they dry very quickly."
Vin minded his manners and stood up.
"Thank you ma'am. I wasn't in a special hurry."
"I know. But I imagined that if I brought some of your clothes back to you soon it would be for the better, just in case you needed one, and I bet you do."
Vin just smiled shyly looking to his black shirt, without saying a word. He just thanked whoever was above because he finally could wear his clothes. He didn't want to stain or ruin Chris's.
"Okay, when I have the rest ready, I will give them to you."
"Thank you again, Mrs. Potter, but it isn't necessary for you to hurry."
Mrs. Potter walked back to her store, and Vin headed to his wagon. He opened the package just a little, afraid the newly clean washing would get dirty.
He was close to his wagon when a shout made him stopped in his tracks.
+ + + + + + +
"Let's try again." Chris said, almost shouting over the sound of the machine that didn't allow him to hear hardly anything else.
Chris' hands were as black as his clothes from the ink used in the machine. It was some loose parts and the accumulation of ink that had stopped the letters printing correctly. Chris had cleaned some parts and greased some others, and now he and Mary were testing it out until the print was okay.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah and Nathan were inside the barn where Ethan's family kept the animals, mares, horses, and cows... The pregnant mare was exhausted. It was her first delivery and the animal was having some problems with it. Nathan was helping her. The young colt was almost out of his mother's body. Nathan was holding his body, while Ethan's father and Josiah held his mother. It was almost done.
+ + + + + + +
"Did you get a lot of money last night Ez?" Buck asked trying to start a conversation. They had been talking about several things, but then they had ridden in silent for a while, and that was killing him.
"I can say it was a profitable night. Why are you inquiring about my monetary profits? Are you considering joining me on some occasion, Mr. Wilmington."
"Oh no, Ez. I don't want to share what little money I have out with you and the rest of gamblers at the table. It was just curiosity. Don't you never get bored?"
"Why should I, my friend. It's an incredible challenge. Each night lady Luck will provide you with different grade of company. If you know what I mean."
Buck tilted his head... There were times when he didn't understand Ezra at all.
He knew he would get bored if he was always playing a card game.
"I could ask you the same about your ladies, Mr. Wilmington. Don't you get bored of them."
"Damn, not Ez. Each one of them is different. I talk with them about different matters... I compliment a different part of their bodies. Some of them have the smoothest skin you have ever touched, but others have the most silken hair that ever tickled your face. But all are lovely, sweet, marvels of Nature."
"You see, Mr. Wilmington. It's the same in the poker table. Each player has his own rules besides the legally established. The challenge and the beauty of the game is to reveal those unofficial rules each one has and use them to your own profit, and at the same time you can use yours without them realizing it. All of those men are welcome at the table and all of them are different and are, of course, standing challenges. There isn't anything more delightful thing at the table than looking into the eyes of a man and telling him with your own that you know it."
Buck turned his head. The Southerner had gotten all his attention, and he didn't really know how or why. A part of him waited hopefully to discover what secrets Ezra owned that made him so unbeatable at any card game. He just wanted to begin a conversation but now he was really immersed in one that his mind thought was completely enthralling.
"That you know what?" Buck asked, patience totally forgotten.
"I see you are astonished, Mr. Wilmington... I'm afraid I can tell no more. No magician will reveal his tricks, so I cannot expose mine. It would not be fair."
"To who?" Buck asked surprised and kind of annoyed.
"Why, to me, of course, my friend, to me." Ezra turned his head to the front again and lost his sight to the landscape in front of him. Buck was a great individual, all of the six men he worked and shared moments with were. He enjoyed immensely their company each time it was possible and he had found himself more than once giving silent thanks to whomever had brought them into his life.
Buck just shook his head smiling. Ezra was incorrigible. Each one of them was so different but he thought that it was this which made them unique and bound them more than tearing them apart. It was advantage, not a disadvantage. He was happy with his current life and thought about how much he was enjoying the patrol.
+ + + + + + +
Vin turned on his heels to face the direction he thought the shout had come from. It had been a clear one: "Larabee!" and Vin imagined what was coming after it.
When he turned he found a young man, proximately between his age and JD's. He was in a duster and his hair it was as long as Vin's and quite similar in color. He had a gun aimed at the Texan. Vin couldn't hide the surprise on his face.
In that instant a shot sounded and he could felt the burning sensation of the bullet enter his left leg. The hit made him fall onto his knee.
"That's it," the stranger shouted, "You must kneel in front of the person that is going to kill you Larabee. Congratulate me. I'm going to be famous."
And instantly Vin's body jerked repeatedly as the bullets hit his body. The only thought in his mind was that the damned boy was not even as good a shooter as Chris was. How had he decided to challenge Chris? His friend would have killed him with just a shot. He realized he was being riddled with holes. He was almost sure the boy had emptied the barrel, but he could tell that only three or four had found their target. His body hit the ground limply, his clothes getting dirty with the dust from the ground.
There was silence just for a moment, then he heard a horse galloping out of town. Vin closed his eyes slowly. The boy had left town.
His mind was clouded but he was wondering where everybody was. He was lying on his back, he felt the pain of each hole the bullets had created when they hit his flesh. He felt the blackness that was calling to him. The blood was leaving his body, and his breath was becoming labored. He panicked. Chris would feel guilty about this, but it wasn't his fault, it was just a mistake. He tried to sit up but he couldn't.
In that moment James Shepherd a young farmer from outside town reached him. Vin hadn't even seen him near when everything had happened. In fact the man had walked out of an alley when he had been sure the shots had stopped.
The man leaned over Vin.
Vin saw the worry on his eyes. "Don't move Mr. Tanner. I'll bring help." Vin nodded almost imperceptibly and, at the same time, he tried to regulate his breath that became labored.
The young man had seen Chris and Mary going into the Clarion Office. He was new in that part of the territory. He only knew some of the relevant people in Four Corners like the peacekeepers that guard it and its newspaper' woman.
"Please hold on there," he said to the injured man, placing a reassuring hand on Vin's head.
The man disappeared from Vin's view in a second. Vin moved his head, slightly turning it to one side in an attempt to see where the young man had gone.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah placed his hands on his hips looking proudly at the newly born colt. It was really amazing. These little miracles of nature always amazed him. The mare was resting after the great effort she had put into bringing her baby into this world.
Josiah tossed his head in two quick movements with a smile of disbelief on his mouth. Nathan had joined him and now both men gazed at the scene playing out in front of them.
The little animal was trying to find its balance with shaky legs but he wasn't very lucky, but his mother was close to him, easing his pain and frustration. She caressed his face with hers. It was such tender sight.
Josiah turned his head for a second and there they were two crows resting on one of the windows of the barn. The ex preacher became livid. That wasn't right. He turned to the happy pair. They don't look in any danger. The mother was fine and so it was the baby.
Nathan saw the change of color on his friend's face. "Is there something wrong, Josiah?"
Josiah didn't even say a word, just a quick movement of this head pointed Nathan where he had to look. The crows were still there but just when Nathan was staring at them, they flew away.
The healer squeezed Josiah's shoulder and walked toward the two animals. He crouched near the mare and checked her. Then he did the same with the colt.
"Everything is fine, Josiah. Both of them are perfectly fine. The colt will get stronger by tomorrow, but it's the only thing."
"Maybe it's a sign, brother Nathan. I say, we should go back to town, right now. Something is wrong." Josiah creased his brows and said that with worry in his voice.
"Okay, let's go." Nathan said heading for the door, ruffling Ethan's hair as he walked by his side. "Congratulations kid, now you have to take care of those two."
Ethan grinned in satisfaction. "I'll do it Mr. Jackson, don't worry."
Josiah mounted his horse in one quick and agile movement. Nathan seeing how worried and in a hurry his friend was, did the same and both were galloping toward the town like bats out of hell.
+ + + + + + +
Chris thought he had heard something but he looked out of the window and everything looked quiet. The machine was working flat out, printing some numbers. He couldn't believe it was so noisy. Mary had explained him that it was because it was an old model.
Suddenly somebody knocked at the door several times with energy. The door trembled with the hits. After that, they heard a voice.
"Please, Mr. Larabee, Mrs. Travis, Mr. Tanner got shot."
Chris flew to the door, grabbed a cloth to clean his hands, pulled it open and rushed into the street. It was fortunate Mr. Shepherd had left him a clear path to the street. His heart caught in his throat when he saw Vin's form lying in a little pool of blood. Vin was coughing and grunting with the increased pain as he tried to raise his upper body.
"What the hell has happened?" Chris crouched next to Vin and placed a hand at the back of Vin's head to lift it so his best friend could breath easier.
"A little mistake, cowboy." He whispered before a wave of coughs overcame him again.
A little mistake that can get you killed.
Chris didn't understand. Shepherd had heard everything the shooter had said.
"A boy stepped on the street and called you out. Mr. Tanner was the only one on the street and I suppose it seems he has mistaken him for you and shot at him until he emptied his gun. Then he left town."
"Dammit." Chris knew there were people interested in getting a name by killing him. He had thought on the possibility of them using his friends to get to him, but not that somebody would actually mistake one of them for him. He looked carefully at Vin's body.
Vin was wearing black clothes that could be Chris's main characteristic and both had light hair color. If the boy only had some signs as a description, it had been enough to mistake Vin for him. It was a stupid mistake and Vin was almost dead.
"Not... your... fault..." Vin grabbed Chris for the front of his shirt with all the strength left in his body. "...just...... mistake."
Chris shook his head with his eyes closed. Why did this have to happen?
Chris hadn't even noticed Mary was near them, crouched next to Vin and began to help him by putting pressure on the wounds, muttering reassuring words. He did the same.
+ + + + + + +
None of them could believe what had just happened. They were riding peacefully when something hit Ezra's horse just at the end of the neck and in the forequarters, with such strength that it sent rider and mount falling to the ground.
Buck could only stare at it in shock. After a second he managed to come back to reality. He turned his horse to the side and saw the cougar. He was what had hit Ezra's horse. Buck looked at the horse lying still on the ground with deep claw wounds on the neck and realized it was dead.
Ezra was struggling with the dead animal to free his leg from under it. He had seen the cougar in the moment the animal jumped to the ground after attacking his horse. He imagined the animal was near by and he needed to protect himself even though he knew Buck was close.
Buck took up his rifle and shot twice at the animal, watching as it fell dead near Ezra. The animal had been preparing to attack again when the ladies' man had aimed and shot.
"It seems I owe you my life, Mr. Wilmington." Ezra said to Buck, who had dismounted, approached him within a second and helped him to get out of his troubled situation.
"You owe me nothing Ez. You'd have done the same for me. Besides I couldn't lose you without knowing how you always win at poker." Buck took his hat off his head and ran the other hand through his black hair. He wanted to lighten the situation but it was a question that needed to be answered. "Isn't it strange for an animal like this to attack in that way?"
Ezra nodded while shaking the dust from his coat. "I agree with you Mr. Wilmington. Now I'm afraid we are short of mounts. That animal almost ruin my pants." Ezra was really annoyed. He realized he had got an L-shaped tear in his pants.
"Come Ez. We can go back town together on my horse."
Ezra turned to face both dead animals: the cougar and the horse. He had never imagined that would happen, and he used some time to think about all the possibilities and options. It wasn't right. This had to have a reason, a meaning.
"Why of course, Mr. Wilmington. I suggest we ride back to town as soon as we are allowed to, but I am not going to inform you about my poker knowledge. It would not be fair. For me." He grinned and headed to Buck's horse, waited until the taller man, who was smiling, mounted then followed his example. They headed back to Four Corners.
+ + + + + + +
"Mary, I have to carry him to Nathan's. I wish he was here now. I need him. Vin needs him." Chris said with urgency in his voice. He didn't even look at her, his eyes never leaving Vin.
She understood completely.
Mary just nodded, worry reflected in her light blue eyes. She could see at least three gunshot wounds. One on Vin's leg, another one on his chest below the shoulder, another one on his other side between the ribs and the gut.
Before Chris made a movement to carry Vin in his arms, she pulled up the hem of her skirt and ripped her petticoat. With that piece she began to put pressure on the wound in Vin's side that was bleeding freely. It was then that she discovered the fourth shot on Vin's hip, and the scratch on his arm where another bullet had grazed him. Vin opened his eyes and saw what the newspaper' woman was doing.
"Mary... don't..." his voice was a whisper that faded to nothing at the end of the sentence. He shook his head lightly to emphasize it. It was the only way. It hurt so much that he couldn't speak. He was sure that if he opened his mouth again, he would only cry out in pain.
For Mercy's sake. He's riddled with bullets. The lady thought. She cared a lot about Vin, more since she had begun teaching him how to read and write. Don't take him from us, please. She stared at Chris as he tried to stop some of the blood from the wound in Vin's chest.
Chris couldn't believe Vin was still alive, but that was the only good news. The rest was killing him from the inside and he could only feel pain, worry and above all, guilt. He slipped his arms under Vin's back and legs to carry him.
Vin was fighting to keep himself conscious. He needed to know Chris was managing the situation. Not for him, but for Chris himself.
"I have to lift you. I need to carry you to Nathan's. I know it's going to hurt. You ready?"
Chris's concern just increased when he saw Vin swallow hard, trying to find his voice and the energy to speak. He couldn't, so Vin nodded briefly.
Chris felt a wet sensation on the arm that he had placed under Vin's back. There was blood on Vin's back also. One of the shots had found an exit.
The younger man hissed through clenched teeth as Chris lifted him and began to walk. Vin's arm, that Chris had placed around his neck, had a tight grip on Chris's jacket. As he walked Vin let his head fall limply backwards. The pain was too much.
+ + + + + + +
Buck and Ezra were riding on one horse for a while when he spotted a rider coming in full gallop toward them. He even rode slower when he passed them by, but Ezra was shook by the rider. He looked a lot like Vin: same hair, in color and length, same kind of hat, and light brown clothes. It wasn't Vin of course, but riding at that speed, it could be him.
But what would Vin be doing here?
Those thoughts about Vin made him feel uneasy. He couldn't pinpoint why, but something wasn't right. It was as if all the things he saw and everything he put his attention on told him that the quiet man was in some kind of important situation, and probably not a good one. Why was the rider galloping like he was running away from something?
"Mr. Wilmington, that rider seemed to be coming from our current residence." Ezra pointed out from behind Buck.
"Yeah, Ez. You must be right... it looks like he came from Four Corners." Buck has also a bad feeling but didn't know why either. Something was wrong, but what it was, was a mystery.
"I'd suggest we get back to town as quickly as it was possible, Mr. Wilmington. If I were Vin, I'd say I have a hunch, a feeling... I don't know, something here." The Southerner pointed to his gut.
"I know what you mean, Ez. Let's go."
+ + + + + + +
Mary stared at the injured man. She smiled sadly. She remembered when she discovered Vin had a price on his head. She couldn't believe it. Vin was the most generous, honorable, reliable and trustworthy person she knew.
Now that he had been spending more time with her in their lessons, she knew more personal things about the quiet man like that he loved his mom immensely and that he would do whatever was necessary for his friends, and mainly for Chris. She had always been amazed at the relationship between the two men. They were brothers without sharing the same blood.
She looked at Chris.
His face was an unreadable mask, so serious, trying to keep himself under control.
Chris had reached the top of the stairs to Nathan's and had placed his best friend on the bed.
Vin had awakened again and managed to keep himself conscious.
The man in black had a wet cloth in one hand and was dabbing Vin's face wiping the sweat that had begun to appear in the effort to keep the pain from the injuries and the exhaustion under control. His other hand was keeping pressure on Vin's side shot.
"Mary please could you keep doing this," Chris asked her gently and almost in a whisper.
Then his attention came back to his best friend. "Okay Vin, I need to examine and take care of these injuries until Nathan comes back. I really wish he was here."
"I reckon... you... wish...it.... Me... too."
Chris realized Vin's features were draining of color. He looked very pale now.
+ + + + + + +
JD had ridden to Miss Nettie's and found Casey sitting on the porch stairs waiting him with her elbows resting on her thighs and her face on her hands. She was wearing pants and she had her brown hair gathered up into a pair of braids. Her face showed boredom. Her horse was tied just outside the house waiting quietly just as she was. He urged his own horse on so he could arrive sooner.
Casey saw him, stood up and walked toward him.
"It's about time, JD. I thought you had forgotten we were going riding this afternoon." She sounded a little annoyed but not too seriously.
He had seen Casey angrier and he was sure this time wasn't one of those. Besides, she looked so cute with her hands on her hips and that gesture on her face trying to look angry.
He walked the distance that separated them.
"I'm sorry Casey... I fell asleep without even realizing it."
He knew Buck would have told him to use one of those white lies he said worked with the ladies. They weren't about important matters and would keep a woman happy. But that wouldn't work for him, and he knew it, so he chose the truth - plain and simple.
Casey knew he was telling the truth. She knew JD couldn't follow Buck's love advice, but she preferred him that way. He was so sincere, so kind and had such a big heart, that she was immensely happy to consider him kind of her boy. He hadn't declared himself to her completely, but she was almost sure he would do it someday, and that was enough.
While she was thinking all of this and staring at him, he had pulled off his hat and pulled some strands of black hair away of his face, quite nervous. What was she thinking? Was she considering if he was telling her the truth or changing her mind about riding with him?
"Casey, I'm so sorry, I'm..."
She waved a hand on the air playing the matter down, "It's okay JD. We have time yet. Come on, let's go." She picked up the reins of her horse and with an agile movement lifted herself on her horse and urged him into a trot. JD imitated and in seconds both of them were riding side-by-side smiling and chatting friendly.
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