"Miz Nettie’s gonna skin me alive," the long haired rider remarked with a crooked grin.
His young companion returned his smile as she urged her horse up along side his. "Nah, she likes you too much."
"Ya mean she did like me, " he teased with wry humor.
Casey’s laughter was light and relaxed. "Aunt Nettie would never have let me stay so late at Miz Travis’ if you hadn’t agreed to see me home."
"I’d guide the devil hisself home fer a piece of Miz Nettie’s peach pie." His bright blue eyes twinkled with merriment as her eyebrows arched in mock indignation.
"Oh, really? And what does that say about me? " she baited, happy they were still able to tease each other after that awful ‘wild oats’ fiasco she had pulled on him.
"Don’t go takin’ me wrong now." He laughed softly at her expression. "Jist meant I’d do ‘bout anythin’ fer one of yer aunt’s pies, includin’ escortin’ an angel like ya.."
"Why, Vin Tanner, you’d best not let JD hear ya talking like that!"
Her soft giggle was such an unusual sound Vin couldn’t resist further teasing. "’Course I know ya’d rather it was JD doin’ the escortin’."
Her cheeks flushed pink as she playfully slugged him in the arm. Vin Tanner had become a frequent visitor since the day he’d helped her aunt save their ranch and Casey had begun to look at him like the big brother she had always wanted.
His rare laugher was cut short as he suddenly reined up his horse. The animal whickered in surprise as four riders swarmed out of the rocks, their guns drawn and aimed at the young man.
Casey stifled a frightened squeal and urged her horse closer to his, "Vin!?"
"’S okay, Casey," he reassured her, keeping his voice calm as he slowly raised his hands in the air. Facing the four alone, he would have put up a fight. He might not have won, but a couple of them would have beat him to hell. But he wouldn’t risk the young girl at his side.
That young lady was putting up a brave front, but Vin could hear her rapid breathing in the still night air and he could picture the terror in her eyes.
"Well, lookee here, boys. Don’t know about y’all but I see five hundred dollars sittin’ there." The leader pushed his horse closer to Vin’s and reached out to relieve him of his weapons.
"Believe there’s a misunderstandin’ here, fellas..." Vin began.
The man lashed out, his huge fist catching the young sharpshooter’s jaw, rocking him back in his saddle as Casey screamed in fear.
"No mistakin’, Tanner. Ya’re valuable. Ya’re wanted in Texas, dead or alive, and we aim to collect that there bounty."
Showing his contempt of the four and the value they placed on his life, Vin slowly wiped the blood from the corner of his mouth as two of the men dismounted. Roughly pulling the young man from his saddle, they stripped off his old hide coat, tossing it aside as worthless as they quickly searched him for further weapons.
No one noticed the small object which fell from the coat pocket and was abandoned in the dust under the horses’ feet.
Vin’s concerned blue eyes cut to Casey, still in her saddle, white faced and trembling with terror.
The leader saw his look and leered. "Little lady’ll be fine as long as ya come along peaceful like. Otherwise..." he trailed off meaningfully.
Vin nodded once. He wouldn’t take chances with Casey’s life. He would never forgive himself if she was hurt. Seething inside, but containing his anger, he stood silently as the men quickly bound his wrists with rawhide even as they joked at how easily they had taken him.
"Now, let’er go," Vin ordered softly as they finally stepped back, pleased with themselves. In their minds they were already spending the bounty money.
The leader laughed. "Sure thing, tracker." Reaching out, he hauled the frightened girl from her saddle, pulling her up close to his face. "Ya start walkin’, girlie, and don’t ya look back." He released his hold and she tumbled to the ground.
Scrambling to her feet, Casey locked fearful eyes with Vin, silently questioning what to do.
Vin saw the conflicting emotions in her frightened eyes. He knew she didn’t want to leave him, knowing there was every possibility these men would kill him. But if she left and could reach his friends, they could offer a better chance of rescue than she could if she stayed. Giving her a reassuring nod, he softly urged, "Go on now, Case, I’ll be fine."
She went. With no recourse, she began walking, then broke into a run. Her fear the men might change their minds added speed to her already swift strides.
The leader watched until she was out of sight then turned to the tracker. "Mount up, boy. It’s a long way to Tascosa."
The man seemed to read his thoughts as Vin hesitated. "It’ll take that girlie hours.... Now, mount up." Without warning, he viciously lashed out with his booted foot, slamming it into the side of the young man’s head.
Vin reeled back, falling to his knees as stars vied with darkness. He shook his head, trying to clear it, even as he felt blood trickling down the side of his face.
"He’s gonna be trouble," one of the other men muttered. "We should’d kept that girl to keep him in line."
"Go after her!" the leader ordered harshly.
As the man turned his horse to give chase, Vin sprang for him. His slight weight hurtling into the heavier man, knocking him from the saddle. They both hit the ground hard, Vin unable to catch himself with his hands bound.
"Damnit!" The bounty hunter pushed the stunned sharpshooter away from him. Scrambling to his feet he drew his pistol and brought it to bear with a loud rolling click on the half dazed man on the ground. "I say we kill the bastard, here and now!"
The leader knocked the gun barrel aside, then loosened his riata from its place on his saddle. "Nah, we don’t wanna kill him just yet."
Vin struggled to his knees as the man approached him. As the young man looked up at him, the bounty hunter swung the braided coils with brutal force. The unmistakable sound of leather hitting flesh was drowned out by Tanner’s painful gasp as he doubled over. With sadistic glee the others joined in, using whatever was at hand.
The helpless young sharpshooter tried to curl into a protective ball as they fell on him like a pack of rabid wolves....
Chris shoved the nearly full whiskey bottle aside. Most nights he did not stop drinking until the bottle was empty, but this night....
Back to the wall, tilting his chair on two legs, he let his restless eyes roam over the room. Buck and JD were at a nearby table, attempting to sweet talk a couple of the working girls. Nathan, at the bar, downed his drink, turned and caught the gunslinger’s gaze. With a slight nod, he moved for the door, ready to call it an evening.
Maybe that was it, Chris mused. Half of the seven was missing. Ezra and Josiah were due back from escorting a prisoner to Eagle Bend and Tanner.... Larabee surpressed a small ghost of a smile. Vin was probably enjoying one of Miz Welles’ pies, thrilled he didn’t have to share it with his six friends.
The gunman shook his head. Four Corners had changed all their lives, but he knew it had changed Tanner’s most of all. The young man had had a brutal childhood and a turbulent life since, dodging and running from the unwarranted bounty on his head. But at least here, in this town, he had friends who helped watch his back, and the young man had begun to relax.
Reaching into his pocket, Chris withdrew a cheroot. Lighting it, he left the confines of the saloon and stepped out onto the boardwalk. His vigilant gaze instinctively searching the street, he realized he was worse than Buck. He had become mother hen to not one, but six, and he wouldn’t be content until he knew they were all safely back home.
"I believe, Brother Sanchez, this to be an advantageous venture," Ezra remarked happily as he and his companion rode slowly down the road. With luck, they would be in Four Corners before dark and he would be sleeping in his own bed.
His companion glanced at him. "So, how much did you win?"
Ezra smiled. "A few dollars short of a hundred." He raised a hand in the air, silencing the remark he knew was coming, "And I assure you, Brother, it was not ill gotten. I bested them fair and square." He momentarily started at the words. Ezra Standish...fair and square? What would his mother say? But when he thought on it, Lady Luck had finally seemed to smile on him when he’d agreed to stay on at Four Corners.
"Perhaps you should offer a percentage of that to the Lord?" Josiah hinted, bluntly adding, "I know a church in dire need of a new roof."
Ezra flashed him a smile. "And that would atone for my past erroneous transgressions and purchase everlasting salvation?"
Josiah shook his head. "Now I don’t know about that, Brother Standish. However..." He reined his horse back so suddenly it fought the bit. "What the...?"
In the gathering dusky light of evening, a lone figure, clearly exhausted, was stumbling down the road.
Dismounting, he tossed his reins to the gambler and hurried on foot after the person.
Screaming as a large hand came to rest on her shoulder, Casey jerked away, tripping and falling to her knees in her haste to get away. She silently cursed herself. She hadn’t been fast enough and just as she had feared, the men had decided not to let her leave. They’d caught up with her and now all hope of getting help for Vin was lost. Then as she focused on the familiar face bent over her, she half sobbed in relief and threw herself in his arms. "They got him! They got him!"
Josiah gently held her, his large hand rubbing her back in small soothing circles, trying to calm the frantic girl. "Who, Casey? They got who? Who are you talkin’ about?""
Clinging to him, unable to stop her trembling, she managed to choke out, "Bounty hunters took Vin!"
Josiah looked up as Ezra approached with the horses. He saw a fleeting glimmer of concern race over the cardsharp’s face or perhaps it was just a trick of the evening’s fading light. "Tell us what happened," he urged gently.
Still trembling with fear, Casey pulled away, angrily wiping at the tears streaking her cheeks. Ashamed to have JD’s friends see her as a simpering, weak female, she struggled to stop the tears. The words tumbled over each other as she explained how she had come to be on foot, running for the safety of Four Corners and not home. "I-I-I wanted to help him.... couldn’t do nothing! They’re gonna..." her voice hitched, "gonna take him back to Tascosa and ...and I-I couldn’t stop ‘em! All I could think was gettin’ back to town and findin’ Chris ‘cause...cause he’d know what to do and he...he’d never let anythin’ happen to Vin."
"Ya did just fine, Casey. Just what ya shoulda done," Josiah assured her, then turned to the gambler who was still mounted. "I’ll take her on to town. You ride out and get Miz Wells."
Ezra didn’t hesitate to argue as he spun his horse and spurred it toward the widow’s ranch.
Josiah helped Casey to her feet. "Ezra’ll get your aunt. It’ll be all right."
"I just wanna go home!" she half wailed.
"You gotta talk to Chris...tell him and JD what happened."
She sniffed. "They’ll help Vin, won’t they?" she asked hopefully. "You won’t let those men hang him?"
"Not if we can help it, honey." He helped her onto his horse, then swung up behind her. Spurring the gelding, he headed for town.
*******Chris paced the length of the boardwalk, the end of his nearly smoked cheroot glowing red in the dusky light. He had expected Ezra and Josiah back by now and Tanner, too, although he wouldn’t be surprised if the young sharpshooter hadn’t opted to spend the night sleeping out under the stars.
The long haired tracker was never one to talk about himself, but from the few things Chris had gathered the young man had good reason to shy clear of people. With a bounty on his head, and five hundred dollars was a fortune to most people, the wilds of nature would definitely be preferable over the bustling confines of town.
Larabee heard a lone horse approaching and force of habit, he stepped back into the shadows. As it came nearer, he recognized Josiah and stepped out into the street to greet him, his worried gaze sweeping behind the preacher’s animal, searching for Ezra.
The clergyman reined up and as he did, Casey slipped from the saddle to rush to Chris, sobbing softly. .
A look of startled surprise came to the gunslinger’s face as he automatically held her. "Casey, what’s wrong?" he queried his voice gentle.
It was Josiah who answered as he dismounted and hitched his horse to the nearby rail. "Bounty hunters took Vin."
Larabee’s expression didn’t change but his eyes hardened. "Where? When?"
Casey gathered herself enough to answer. "We were by the creek turn off and.....and four men...... out of no where. One of them said something about Tascosa..." Her eyes again welled with tears. "Isn’t that where they want to hang Vin?"
Neither man answered as Chris looked up the street. "Where’s Ezra?"
"He went back for Miz Wells."
Larabee nodded. "I’ll take Casey over to Mary’s while you round up the boys. We’ll head out as soon as Ezra’s back and be ready to track at first light ." He gently steered Casey toward the Clarion’s office and Josiah hurried to gather the others.
His first conscious thought was of overwhelming pain. Yet even as it stabbed though his body he knew at least he was still alive. No one could hurt that grievously and be dead. Close to it, but still breathing like the time his grandpa had taken the leather strap to him for sneaking out to ride the old man’s saddle horse. Hell, he had only been about ten and the animal hadn’t been hurt but his grandfather had been a cruel hard man.....
He mentally shook himself. His thoughts were clouded but he remembered town and Miz Travis....Casey..... He had been taking Casey home. Casey.... Concern for the young girl compelled him to open his eyes.
Big mistake. One eye was matted with blood and the other was swollen nearly closed. Lifting his hands to rub at them, he realized they were still bound. His wrists were abraded raw from the chafing leather, but that was the least of his hurts. He gagged on the coppery taste of blood in his mouth, the action nearly ripping his insides apart. He’d suffered pain like that before, once when he was hunting buffalo and a bull had charged his horse. The animal had gone down, rolled over him and cracked his ribs.
"Not good, Tanner," he whispered. Still he rubbed at his eyes to clear them and looked around in the gray light of morning. He was lying on the cold ground and his searching fingers revealed his wrists were secured to a rope bound to a nearby boulder. There was no way he could reach the knots and short of his knife, which they had taken, there was no way to free himself. It was just as well, his mind rationalized. He hadn’t the energy to run anyway.
His gaze drifted to the sleeping men nearby. Bounty hunters. Yeah, he had hunted bounty himself, but he had never been cruel and had resorted to violence only as a last resort. These men had delighted in battering the hell outta him, even laughing at his feeble attempts to protect himself from their punishing kicks and blows. Hell, he reasoned, the bounty was payable dead or alive. It had to happen sooner or later. He would have preferred later. Just a shame Chris wouldn’t be taking him up on that offer... better a friend collect the reward than these no-good bastards.
Vin momentarily wondered if the gunslinger or any of the others would even bother searching for him. Hell, he reasoned, until Casey told them what happened, they wouldn’t even know he was missing. Because of his solitary roaming and camping out, they’d think he was fine.....just out on his own again. Would they search for him after talking with Casey or figure it was too late to do anything? After all, the law was on the side of the bounty hunters. Still, if he was going to be honest with himself, he would have to admit, in his heart of hearts, he hoped they would come after him. But even as he hoped, years of cold bitter reality pushed that hope away. Vin Tanner was alone and on his own, just as he had always been.
A sudden wracking pain shuddered his body and rather than fight it, he gave in, letting the darkness pull him into that place where loneliness and pain didn’t matter..
The six men gathered at the stable, mounted their horses and swiftly rode out of town. Following Casey’s directions and using lit torches they located the place where Vin had been captured. Aware, even with the torches to light the way, none of them had Tanner’s tracking ability they decided to wait until first light to try and follow the bounty hunters’ trail.
Dismounting, Chris began pacing, his blue green eyes hardening to winter ice each time he saw the blood--Vin’s blood--on the ground and read the events in the dirt.
Following suit the others waited impatiently for the sun to show. It was Buck who first saw Vin’s old coat tossed over a low bush, abandoned by the bounty hunters as having no value. Knowing what it meant to the young tracker, he retrieved it. He carefully brushed the dirt from it and folded it neatly. As he moved to lash it behind his cantle, he was aware of five pairs of disquieted eyes watching him. Like himself, each man wondered if their young friend would ever have the chance to wear the coat again.
The sun had not yet risen when they hit their saddles to head out, tight lipped and worried. Ezra, bringing up the rear, saw something half hidden in the dust. Dismounting, reins in hand, he knelt and picked up the harmonica, staring at it for a long moment. Carefully tapping the dust from it, he slipped the instrument into his vest pocket. Vin would be needing it to keep him company on those long nights when town got a little to crowded and he’d head for the wide open countryside. Swinging up into his saddle, Ezra reined his horse after the others.
Consciousness returned and with it pain as Vin felt a heavy boot slam into his back. Hissing in pain, he tried to roll away from the kick, raising his bound wrists in a useless attempt to shield already damaged ribs. His entire body convulsed as a kick more powerful than the first, forced a low sob of agony from his lips.
"Get movin’, ya sorry sonofabitch." Rude hands jerked him up from the ground.
He swayed and fell to his knees, half blind and hovering on the edge of unconsciousness. He was jerked to his feet again, his ribs agonizingly protesting the harsh treatment.
"Get on that horse, or ya’ll be belly down across the saddle," a harsh voice ordered as another powerful shove staggered him again.
He vaguely heard someone joking the reward was good, dead or alive as he struggled to focus his eyes on the dark familiar bulk of his horse. Stumbling, battling the pain, it took him four tries to finally pull himself into the saddle and once he gained it, he leaned over the horn in an effort to alleviate the agony twisting in his chest. He coughed, the action nearly tearing him apart. Panting in short breaths, he swallowed hard, and gripped the saddle horn as one of the men led his horse out.
The gelding had an easy gait but every step now was sheer torture as pain shot through his battered and abused body. He clung desperately to the saddle, knowing if he fell, he would never get up again.
Swaying in agony, he vaguely wondered if his friends would be able to track him. He wanted to hope, wanted to cling to that one single thread of rescue, but stubborn reality prevailed. He had given up on hope a long time ago, when he had prayed someone would deliver him from his grandfather. That plea had never been answered and now he hadn’t even the strength to hope. Now, as then, he was alone.
"They made camp here, rested their horses. They don’t think they’re being followed," Chris pointed out.
"Didn’t expect Miss Casey to make it to town so quick," Nathan muttered lowly.
Chris studied the ground, his expression growing colder. "He’s still alive."
"How can you tell?" JD questioned naively.
"Footprints. Them’s his boots. He’s not doin’ good, but he got on his horse." Larabee didn’t think it necessary to add the prints in the dusty soil indicated it had taken Vin several tries before accomplishing that simple action.
"How long?" Josiah asked, watching the gunslinger mount up.
"Couple hours maybe." They had pushed their own animals hard in an attempt to catch up.
"Then let’s ride," Buck muttered as he spurred his horse up the trail, the others following.
Rough hands wrested him from the saddle, knocking him to the ground. Consumed by unrelentless agony, he curled into a ball in the dirt as the four bounty hunters squabbled over his fate.
"Put ‘im outta his misery."
"Bounty’s good either way."
"He’s just slowin’ us down."
"Kill the worthless bastard."
A tiny voice snickered in Vin’s mind. He might be a bastard true enough, but he wasn’t worthless.....he was worth $500. Hell, if he hadn’t stayed in Four Corners this wouldn’t be happening. If he’d gone on to Tascosa as he’d planned it would have been ironed out and he’d be a free man. "Instead, " the little voice whispered, "instead ya stayed. Why?"
A small part of him retained clarity and he knew the answer. All his life folks had tried to keep him down: his grandpa, the orphanage, the military, but he was a Tanner and they didn’t stay down, unless they were stone cold dead.
Vin had realized inevitably there comes a time when a body grew weary of looking into strangers’ faces and seeing nothing but distance and hostility. Seemed most his life, folks had passed right by him, looking through him like he didn’t or shouldn’t exist. Never once was there any acknowledgment in anyone’s eyes, even though he had optimistically, foolishly yearned for there to be. He had longed to see trust and acceptance gazing back at him just one time.
Then, came that day, when he stood on the boardwalk in front of Watson’s hardware, ready to jeopardize his life for a man he didn’t even know. His searching gaze had traveled the street and chanced on a pair of green-blue eyes searching just as his was. Their gazes locked and that man did not look through him or turn away. Those blue-green eyes which saw him belonged to Chris Larabee.
It was Chris who had walked that long dusty street with him, ready to back up his play. A total stranger had trusted him, accepted him, and because Larabee believed in him, over time, oddly enough, warily, hesitantly, he had grown to trust the fair haired gunslinger as he had trusted no one in his life. And with Chris’ trust came that of the other six. It had taken time but he knew, with a strange sense of rare delight, any one of them would protect his back, just as he would watch theirs in return.
Trust----small word, big responsibility. Not only had he become a part of something bigger than himself, he had found acceptance and a sense of family, something he hadn’t known since he was a small child. Along with the six, he had grown to welcome an extended family in Mary, Billy, Inez, Nettie, and Casey. Four Corners had become home .
And now somewhere in his pain ravaged mind that one consuming thought flared. He had to get back home....
Vin was jarred back to reality with a punishing kick to his ribs. He gasped outloud and the man towering over him laughed as he moved away, not bothering to tether him.
Finding a strength born of Tanner stubbornness, Vin rolled to his knees and pushed to his feet, trying to scramble away.
One of the hunters saw his desperate attempt, and like a cat with a mouse let the young tracker gain distance, before spurring his horse and giving chase, easily catching up with the injured man, forcing him back.
Panting, shaking his head to clear it, Tanner broke away from him and ran for a cluster of boulders three hundred feet away.
It might as well have been miles. The man, joined by his jeering companions effortlessly caught up with him and even ducking and darting between their horses did little to secure Vin’s freedom.
He was within fifty feet of the rocks when he lurched, stumbling to his knees. It felt as if a red hot poker had suddenly been thrust into his right side. The sound of the gun’s sharp report mixed with the roaring in his ears. Clutching his side, gritting his teeth, Vin fought his way to his feet. Panting in pain, he limped toward the relative safety of the rocks. They were almost close enough to touch when blackness dragged him down. As he collapsed in the dust, his outstretched fingers brushed the boulders.
The bounty hunters approached, cussing the one who had fired. They stood over their prize, gloating and laughing about his feeble attempt to flee. With little consideration for his bloodied side, two of them grabbed him under the arms and dragged him back toward the fire.
The bounty hunters approached, cussing the one who had fired. They stood over their prize, gloating and laughing about his feeble attempt to flee. With little consideration for his bloodied side, two of them grabbed him under the arms and dragged him back toward the fire.
All sense of time lost, Vin fought back to consciousness. Night had fallen, and the campfire was nearly burnt out. Shaking his head, in a futile attempt to clear his vision, he forced his eyes to focus on the forms of the men around the fire. Three were asleep and it looked as if the one on watch was nodding off as well. Vin knew if he didn’t attempt to escape now, he never would. This might be the only chance he was going to get. Despite his wounds he had to try....or die.
Endeavoring to move, Vin bit his lip to keep from sobbing outloud as his body protested any kind of movement. A quick check revealed his wrists were still bound but this time there was no rope attached to his bonds. They obviously thought he was too injured to escape.
His lips thinned in a small smile. Their mistake. Seeing the man on watch nod off at last, with a sharp muffled gasp, Vin painfully pushed to his knees and with a sharp intake of breath crawled away from the camp. Trying for a horse was too risky, so once far enough from the light of the dying fire, he weakly struggled to his feet and scrambled away as quickly as his abused condition allowed, keeping to the rocks to hide his trail.
If there was a moon in the night sky, it was hidden behind clouds which drizzled a rain so light it more closely resembled a thick mist. Vin could hear the sounds of water below as he managed to find his way along a rocky ridge. Keeping down, he stumbled on. He could feel the warm flow of blood down his side, could feel the wet stickiness as it saturated his clothes. The tracker knew he was going to bleed to death if he didn’t do something, he stubbornly continued on, needing to put distance between himself and the bounty hunters. If he stopped, they would find him. He stumbled on, his steps becoming more erratic as his vision blurred and his head swam.
"Aw, hell...!" he swore weakly realizing his life was flowing away. This wasn’t how he would have chosen to die. At least, a part of his mind snickered, it beat swinging at the end of a hangman’s rope for a murder he didn’t commit.
He stumbled to a stop, leaning against a boulder to keep from collapsing. He just needed to find someplace to hole up long enough to patch himself up. Someplace where they couldn’t find him. But he knew it wasn’t here in the open. He pressed his hands to his side seeking to staunch the blood flow with little effect, knowing he was probably leaving a blood trail even JD could follow.
He fleetingly wondered if the other six were even out looking for him, or were they too caught up in their own worlds of whiskey, gambling and womanizing to even give his sorry ass a moment’s thought Immediately ashamed by the disloyal thought, Vin realized his friends had backed his play too many times to deserve the bitter thoughts.
He swore at himself. He had never relied on other folks to rescue him before, so why look to others now? The one thing this Tanner had learned was if you needed help on a journey then you’d best not start the trip. It was a waste of time to pray for someone to get you out of a bind. When all was said and done, you only had yourself to count on. Too many years alone had taught him that sad fact of life.
Knowing that, he pushed away from the boulder and staggered on. Without forewarning, the damp ground gave way beneath his feet and he lost his footing. With a low cry of pain and regret he felt himself falling...plunging.....into the swirling water below.
Skipping along, Mattie chased a bright butterfly as it flitted from wildflower to wildflower. She hesitated, before gathering a handful of the bright blossoms to take to her momma. Flowers clutched in her small, chubby hand, she twirled dizzily, laughing, and started back toward the house. Maybe the flowers would make her momma smile. Mattie knew her momma was troubled about something, and with the knowing ways of a six year old, sensed it had something to do with money, or the lack thereof.
Instead of crossing the field Mattie decided to take the long way back along the creek As she rounded a fallen log, she stopped in her tracks. The body of a man lay on his side in the long grass by the water’s edge. With wide blue eyes, she slipped forward and nudged his boot with a stick.
"Mister?" she whispered, thinking he must be asleep, although as momma always said no one should be wasting daylight.
"Mister?" She spoke up, advancing closer. It was then she saw the blood and her mouth fell open. He had to be dead.
She had never seen a dead body before. She had seen dead animals on the farm, but never a dead person. Inching nearer, she reached out trembling fingers and jabbed at his damp blue clad shoulder.
With a startled yelp, she leaped back when his eyes fluttered open.
When he made no movement toward her, she leaned closer and again murmured "Mister?"
Vin slitted his eyes and focused their pain filled gaze on her face. "Find..... Chris...." he forced out.
Mattie wasn’t frightened as she leaned closer and awkwardly pat his shoulder. "I’ll get momma," she promised. Scrambling to her feet, she ran for home, the forgotten blossoms dropped by the man in her haste.
Mattie’s voice carried in the still, quiet air, capturing Lucy’s attention with its strident tone. She raced through the barn to see her daughter hastening from the direction of the stream. Dropping the tools she had been using to repair the fence she hurried to meet her in the yard, worried the child might have hurt herself while she was out wandering.
"What, child?" she demanded as she brushed a lock of fair hair from her eyes.
Mattie dashed up to her, and trying to catch her breath she panted out, "Man....by....the...stream......hurt. He’s..all...bloody. Hurry...momma...he’s gonna..die!"
Lucy stared at her daughter, wondering if this was one of her flights of fancy but her daughter clutched her arm, attempting to draw her in the direction of the stream. Lucy stopped her. "If someone is hurt, we may need to bring him here. Run, get some water and clean towels and I’ll harness ol’ Mike. Hurry now."
The child hastened to obey as Lucy rushed to the barn. It only took moments to hitch the old mule to her light wagon and Mattie came from the house as she drove him from the barn. She handed the supplies to her mother and scrambled up on the seat beside her.
"Hurry, momma! He’s gonna die!"
Lucy urged the old mule into a trot and followed her daughter’s directions to the stream.
A short ways from the trail, Lucy saw the figure of a man, sprawled in the tall grass at the stream’s edge. Halting the mule, she vaulted to the ground and hurried to him. His long wet brown hair was plastered to his face hiding his features and her gray eyed gaze quickly jumped to his rawhide bound wrists. Her eyes froze on the visible crimson stain smeared across his clothes. The young woman vacillated, not sure if this were something she wanted to be involved with.
"Momma, do something!"
At Mattie's insistent cry, she knelt beside the man and reached out a gentle hand. "Mister?" Lucy touched his shoulder and gained no response. Holding her breath, she pushed aside the long hair laying across his discolored face and lightly touched his unshaven cheek. "Mister?"
Long lashes flickered and blue eyes concentrated on her face. The exhausted distress filled gaze settled on her face and his bloodstained hands came up to weakly clutch her sleeve. "Mary.......get.....Chris..." he whispered with effort.
"Shhhh..." she soothed softly as she dug in her pocket and located her knife. Opening the blade, she gingerly severed the rawhide bindings holding his wrists and grimaced at the deep bloody abrasions the coarse leather had produced.
His hands dropped, but his blue eyes stayed trained on her face as she gently pushed aside his bloody shirt. Her breath caught. She was use to Mattie’s cuts and scrapes, had even set a broken bone or two, but she had no familiarity with gunshot wounds. Common sense urged her to check for an exit wound and the woman carefully shifted Vin around. The larger exit was in the front. Someone had shot him in the back.
Probing as tenderly as she could and trying to ignore the man’s painful hissing breaths, Lucy realized the bullet had passed through his side, skimming along a rib and while it was bloody, it was not life threatening. The greatest peril was bleeding to death or infection.
Lucy sat back on her heels and looked around. She couldn’t properly attend him here, lying on the ground. She chewed on her lower lip, debating if she wanted to put Mattie and herself at risk by bringing this stranger into her home. A painful mumble from the man quickly made up her mind for her.
Motioning to a wide eyed Mattie, she called for her to bring the wagon closer. Then gently shaking the man to get his attention she waited until his eyes centered on her. "You have to help me. I can’t do this by myself. You’ve got to help..." He conceded a tiny nod as she wrapped a strong arm about his waist and lifted him to his feet. He faltered against her, panting rapidly from the exertion, nearly knocking them both over. Supporting most of his slight weight, she helped him traverse the short distance to the wagon where he crumpled into the back of it.
Helping Mattie in beside him to make sure he didn’t fall out, Lucy climbed onto the seat, gathered the leathers and urged ol’ Mike toward the house where she had a hard time wakening the man when she stopped at the door.
Mattie stood with frightened eyes, her hand to her mouth. "Is he dead, momma?" she whispered softly.
Lucy wasn’t certain herself but relief flooded through her as she saw the irregular rise and fall of his chest. "He’s alive, honey. Run and open the door for us, okay?"
As the child ran to do as she ask, Lucy managed to rouse the wounded man. As Vin fought unconsciousness staggering against her, she could perceive the pain tremors coursing through his spare body and heard him attempting to control the painful hissing of his rapid shallow breathing. Stumbling, his weight leaning heavily on her, they staggered into the house.
Knowing Mattie’s bed was too small, Lucy maneuvered him toward her own, motioning for Mattie to pull down the quilt before letting him collapse. He lost awareness, and she stood scowling, looking down at him, taking a moment to catch her breath as she perused his features.
He was young, scruffy-faced with long curling brown hair, attired typically as a range rider in a blue shirt, neck scarf and tan trousers. Her frown deepened as she realized he was not wearing a gun. Shaking her head at the strangeness of that, Lucy removed his boots and made him as comfortable as she could.
Sometime later she straightened and pushed her hair from her eyes, wearily rubbing the small of her back.. She had cleaned, medicated and bandaged the gunshot wound in his side and had strapped his bruised ribs. Clearly someone had worked him over and as she peered at his bruised face, she wondered what he could have done to warrant such a thrashing. A sudden trepidation washed over her. What if that someone came looking for him...and found him here? Had she truly put herself and Mattie in peril by fetching this man into her home?
Yet as she stared at his visage, perceiving an unguarded vulnerability in his features, Lucy was overwhelmed with compassion. She would never refuse to help someone, especially someone who had been so ill used. What sort of example would she be to her daughter if she had left him to die?
She refilled the basin with water and with a clean towel, she gently bathed the man’s face of the bloody streaks and dirt, realizing he was younger than she had originally imaged. His paleness only sufficed to accentuate the dark bruises on his jaw and cheekbones. Lying there, eyes closed, long lashes fanned against his cheeks, he appeared like a lost little boy.
At her ministrations, he stirred slightly and mumbled something but his eyes did not open. Covering him with her quilt, Lucy moved outside to tend the mule, knowing Mattie would call her if needed.
Chris contemplated the steadily darkening sky and cursed vehemently as rain began to patter down, producing little puffs of dust as it hit the powdery dry ground.
Buck reined in his mount, looking at Chris, the others following suit. "Guess we should make camp until this blows over," he proposed.
Chris shot him an irate tight lipped look as he commenced to ride passed him. Buck extended his hand and seized the black gelding’s reins, halting him.
"Let go, Buck." There was menace in the gunslinger’s low voice.
"Look, Chris, none of us want to stop, but the horses need rest. We all do. Wait until this storm blows over and we’ll get a fresh start."
"Damn rain’ll wash out their tracks," Chris growled.
"We know they’re headed for Tascosa." Buck pointed out. "C’mon, give that horse a rest, or you’ll be on foot and you’ll never help Vin then."
Chris glowered at him before looking off into the distance, chewing the inside of his lip. As much as he hated to admit it, Buck was right. They had been pushing the horses hard and they did need rested. Come to think about it, he could stand a hot cup of coffee himself. But he hated to take the time with Vin’s life in the balance.
"Brother Buck makes sense, Chris," Josiah murmured beside him. With a deep acquiescent sigh he nodded and swung down from his saddle. "We’ll make camp here."
As the others dismounted and moved to minister to their wearied horses, Chris stepped away from the black and stared off at the horizon. He hated this feeling of utter helpless frustration. Vin was out there somewhere and he needed their help.
Lucy awakened to the pattering of rain on the roof followed by the steady dripping of water on her floor. Quietly maneuvering her sleeping daughter from her arm, she eased from the child’s bed and lighting a candle, placed a pan under the drip.
Since she was awake anyway, Lucy moved to check the condition of the stranger in her bed, laying a gentle hand on his forehead. Perceiving the heat of fever she knew, despite her best efforts, infection had set in. Tending him as best she could with her limited medical knowledge and small stock of medicinal supplies, Lucy spent the rest of the night at his bedside, listening to his delirious murmurings of Chris, Mary, Casey and Ezra, Billy, Nettie and peach pie.
The storm passed and as the sun spilled over the land, his fever broke allowing him to settle into a deep healing sleep. Stirring from her vigil, Lucy put on water for coffee and slowly moved outside, stretching the kinks from her back caused by sitting in the hard straight chair all night.
She quickly tended her stock and fed the chickens. As she walked back to the house, she heard the drumming of horses’ hooves on the hard ground. Her searching eyes located the approaching riders and her steps quickened. Opening the door, she reached inside, took down her Greener and made sure it was fully loaded. Moving out into the yard, Lucy took a calming breath and waited as the four men drew rein in front of her.
One lazily touched his hat brim. "Ma’am."
She nodded but didn’t speak.
His shifty eyed gaze roamed the yard. "We’re looking for a feller..." Delving into a pocket on his soiled shirt, he withdrew a folded paper. Shaking it out, he held it where Lucy could read it. "He’s wanted in Texas for murder. We lost him...his tracks ... in the rain. Ya seen anybody here’bouts?" he asked hopefully.
Lucy gazed at the dodger, recognizing the resemblance to the young man in her bed. She hastily skimmed the words even as she was shaking her head. "No, no one," she prevaricated easily realizing these men were not to be trusted..
"Any other farms around here?"
She pointed. "Hastings’, that way ‘bout five miles."
"Don’t suppose your husband’s seen anyone, has he?" one of the others queried, his gaze going up and down her body, stopping on the Greener she held securely and knowingly in her hands.
"No, he hasn’t mentioned seein’ anyone," she lied.
"Sorry to bother ya." They reined away, headed in the direction of Hastings’ homestead.
She watched until they were out of sight, then slowly moved back into the house. As she restored the gun on its rack, her gaze shifted to the man in her bed. Tanner, Vin Tanner. A pensive expression came to her face. Five hundred dollars was a lot of money. It would end a lot of her problems. Five hundred dollars..... and he had literally fallen into her lap.
Vin slowly opened his eyes. His surroundings blurry, he closed his eyes and slowly reopened them, letting them adjust to the dim light. The ceiling overhead was not familiar. Not Nathan’s, not his boarding house room, definitely not his wagon, and most certainly not out doors. As realization sank in, he recognized the soft bed and pillows were not familiar either. He swallowed, licking dry lips and slowly turned his head to find himself staring into eyes as blue as his own.
"Are you my daddy?"
The softly uttered question surprised him and Vin blinked, then slowly shook his head. "Don’t think so," he admitted, his voice raspy.
"Momma said he had blue eyes and hair like mine. You do too. See." The little girl leaned closer to him, her fair hair brushing his cheek.
He looked beyond her and saw a blond woman asleep in a chair, wrapped in the golden glow of a kerosene lamp. The tracker focused back on the child who was staring at him intently. He swallowed hard and his voice was a little stronger. "Would’a ‘membered someone pretty as yer momma," he assured her.
"My name’s Mattie. What’s yours?" she pried staring at him intently.
She frowned. "That’s a strange name." The child settled back to continue staring at him. "Momma’s name is Lucy, Lucy Garth."
Mattie turned guiltily at her mother’s reprimand. "His name’s Vin, momma."
Lucy gained her feet and smoothed her hair as she moved closer to the bed. "I apologize for my daughter. She doesn’t see many strangers."
"No problem, ma’am."
"How are you feeling?" She laid the back of her hand against his forehead and felt no heat.
He flushed and pulled away, embarrassed by her gesture. "I’m fine, ma’am."
"I’d hardly say that, Mr. Tanner," she admonished.
His blue eyes veiled, "Ya know my name?"
Her face softened. "You did talk a lot, Mr. Tanner. Mostly delirium," she added.
He compressed his lips as if angry at himself for his weakness. "How long?"
"Mattie found you two days ago. You were in pretty bad shape." Lucy hesitated, then added, "I...I’d venture someone wanted you dead, Mr. Tanner."
He brought his eyes up to stare into hers but did not answer.
She moved to fill a cup with cold water and lifted his head so he could drink. Vin gratefully swallowed the cool water as he continued to stare at her and Lucy felt somehow intimidated by his intense look. Pulling her gaze from his, she stepped back. "I’d guess you’re hungry."
That brought a small smile. "Been a while," he admitted.
She moved to the stove. "Mattie, why don’t you go see if you can find some fresh eggs for Mr. Tanner’s breakfast?"
The child flashed him a wide smile as she ran out the door to see if the old hens had laid yet.
Vin watched her leave, then swung his gaze back to the mother "Where’s her father?" he questioned softly as he gingerly pushed into a sitting position.
Lucy paused and shrugged, intent on the skillet in her hand. "He left long before she was born." She shook her head, "Even before he saw fit to marry me." She brought her gaze up to stare out the window at her daughter. "Do you," her voice was almost inaudible, "know how hard it is to explain to a child why she doesn’t have a father? Why the town folk whisper and point when they see her? "
His blue eyes took on a haunted softness. "Yes, ma’am, I do," he whispered. A flash of remembered pain raced crossed his face. The young man knew all too well what it was like not to have a father and the shame his mother had bore. A child born out of wedlock may have been called a bastard, but the true disgrace always and forever lay on the mother. "I’m sorry," he whispered softly.
As she brought her eyes around to meet his the woman realized he did know. Something in his eyes revealed a pain time and distance could not hide. Something she did not want to delve into.
Lucy turned, forcing a smile. "This," she motioned with her hand, changing the subject quickly, "was my Pa’s place. I came back after Ma died... she didn’t want anything to do with me or Mattie, but when she died, I came back to help out Pa. When he passed on, I stayed." Her expression fell and her gaze dropped to the floor. "Didn’t have anyplace else to go to."
Vin stared at her silently, knowing there was more on her mind.
She toyed with the frayed edge of the towel in her hand then brought her gaze up to meet concerned blue eyes filled with compassion. Something in those eyes struck a cord in Lucy and the silent burden she had been carrying alone for so long was quietly voiced to the sad eyed stranger. "Lately things have been hard. Money’s tight and the place is falling down. I keep thinking I’ll sell it somehow, and use the money to send Mattie back east...to a proper school, ya know."
"What ‘bout ya? Where’d ya go?" he asked softly.
She shrugged again. "Don’t matter. I can make do anywhere. It’s Mattie I’m worried about, growin’ up out here, never seeing children her own age, having no friends. A child needs friends."
Vin nodded, remembering his solitary days as a child. Even in the towns, the good folks never wanted their own children to play with ‘that Tanner bastard’.
Lucy looked around the small cabin, her expression pensive. "Even with a leaky roof and broken fences, it’s been Mattie’s home and mine." Wistfulness clouded her eyes. "Guess it’s our roots, Mr. Tanner."
"Everyone needs those, ma’am." he admitted.
She visibly shook off the shroud of sadness and gave him a puzzled smile even as she wondered at her openness with this man. With a shrug she began to prepare breakfast.
Breakfast finished and the dishes washed, Lucy shooed Mattie outside on the pretense of needing her help in the garden, telling the child Mr. Tanner needed to rest. Truth be known, Lucy was embarrassed by how much she had told the wanted man about herself. The flier had said he was wanted for murder. As unlikely as that seemed, Lucy did not want her child exposed to him any more than necessary.
The man seemed nice enough but she had decided she had no wish to know anything about him which might hamper her plans. Only total indifference would allow her to collect the badly needed bounty on his head with as little guilt as possible. The only thing she needed to know, the one thing she had to keep uppermost in her mind, was Vin Tanner’s face value was five hundred dollars.
When she returned to fix dinner, Lucy could feel his stare as he watched her move around the small quarters. She refused to meet his eyes, keeping her attention on what she was doing, but as her eyes inadvertently met his, Lucy could not help but see the wounded hurt in their dark blue depths. His expression was one of confusion and contrition, not knowing what he had done to alienate her.
As much as she hated to admit it to herself, a part of her ached. She was not normally a judgmental person but somehow she knew if she allowed herself to get close to this man, she could never turn him in. Something about him broached trust ....
As she spooned up soup for Mattie’s dinner, Lucy looked up, surprised to see the man had gained his feet and was standing, shakily, but he was definitely standing.
"What are you doing?" she demanded, moving to his side.
"Need ta be gettin’ on my way," he muttered, clutching his side, pain etched on his pale face.
"Don’t be silly," she admonished, gently pushing him back down on the bed.
"Don’t wanna be a burden on ya, ma’am."
Mattie had jumped to her feet and was beside him. "You can’t go!" She grasped his arm.
"Mattie, leave Mr. Tanner alone."
"His name’s Vin," the child cried out, "his name’s Vin and I’m keeping him!"
Lucy’s mouth fell open as she turned and saw the stunned look on the young man’s face. "What did you say?"
"I found him! He’s mine! You can’t make me give him up!"
Lucy looked at the tracker. "I’m sorry..."
He shook his head and gave her a small smile. "’S okay. Kinda nice ta be wanted fer a change."
Her face blanched as she looked away, wondering if that was directed at her.
Mattie clung to his hand, refusing to let go. "I can keep you, can’t I, Vin?"
Tanner very gently untangled his fingers from her strong grip. "Much as I’d like that, there’s other places I gotta go, other people..."
"You have a family?" Mattie asked, tears forming in her eyes. "A little girl of your own?"
He shook his head. "No."
"Then stay here with momma and me," she implored. "We’ll be your family and I’ll be good and do everything you say and eat all my vegetables and tend all the animals...."
"Mr. Tanner has a life elsewhere, Mattie. He’s just here until he’s able to move on. I explained that to you."
"But I don’t want him to go!" Her tears spilled over, running down her cheeks. "If he leaves people might do bad things to him again!"
A strange look flickered over Vin’s face, surprise at her worry. "I’ll be fine," he promised.
Mattie shook her head vehemently. "No, you won’t!" Tears streaming down her face, she ran from the cabin.
Giving Vin an apologetic look, Lucy went after her.
The tracker sat silently staring at the open door, dismay washing across his face. The last thing he wanted was to hurt the child. He had deduced Lucy’s distance was an attempt to keep him at arm’s length and whereas she might have succeeded, her daughter had not. The sooner he left the better.
He carefully moved around on the bed and slowly gained his feet. Waiting until the feeling of lightheadedness passed, Vin took a tentative step; grabbing the bedpost to keep from falling as the room began to tilt. Calling on every ounce of the Tanner stubbornness he had inherited, Vin doggedly straightened and shuffled several feet.
"What are you doing?"
His brought his eyes up to see Lucy standing in the doorway, hands on her hips.
"You’re gonna fall over," she admonished, moving to wrap her arm about his waist and help him back to the bed.
Vin sat down slowly and looked up into her face. "I wouldn’t blame ya..."
She frowned. "Pardon?"
"Lotta money. "
Lucy felt the color drain from her cheeks. "Money?"
"They’s here, weren’t they?" He got his answer when she averted her eyes. "Ya saw the poster."
It wasn’t a question but after several moments, the embarrassed woman nodded.
"I didn’t kill him, Lucy. Was buffalo huntin’ ‘till there weren’t none left ta hunt, so I took ta bounty huntin’." Vin shrugged. "A man’s gotta eat. Fella I’s trackin’ set me up, and I got charged fer a murder I didn’t do." He trailed off. "Like I told Chris, if anyone’s gonna collect, I’d rather it be a friend."
She stared at him, "Murder’s a hanging offense in Texas, Mr. Tanner."
"Yep." He stared up into her face, his eyes meeting hers with a directness which surprised Lucy. "Like I said, wouldn’t blame ya none."
She was still staring at him when Mattie came through the door.
The six men rode scattered across the land, searching for some sign to mark the trail of their missing compadre. They regrouped, dejected and still at a loss, as the light began to fade.
Chris wearily dismounted and unsaddled his horse, dropping his gear in a heap on the ground. Rubbing the sweat and dust from the animal, he picketed it to graze, then packed his saddle to where Josiah already had a fire started. The other men were gathered around, silent and tired as they sipped fresh coffee.
Chris poured himself a cup and glanced up, catching a worried look exchanged between the preacher and the healer. "What?" he questioned, lowering the cup without drinking.
The healer shook his head. "All this rain yesterday and this morning. Just hope Vin’s found shelter somewhere outta it. Otherwise, might be lookin’ at pneumonia."
Buck snorted. "Hell, Nate, Vin’s healthy as a horse."
"Maybe ya ain’t readin’ the same signs as I am, Buck," the black man muttered, turning away to shake out his bedroll.
"Now what the hell did he mean by that?" Buck questioned anyone listening.
"Let it ride, Buck," Chris ordered, an edge to his voice.
Buck made a face and turned back to his coffee, muttering under his breath.
"I do believe there is a settlement a short ways north of here. Store, saloon, nothing else. Perhaps we could inquire about Mister Tanner’s whereabouts there?" Ezra offered.
"Ya think Vin could’a got that far?" Josiah softly questioned Chris.
The blond shrugged. "Don’t rightly know, but I sure aim to find out."
The following morning after breakfast, Lucy changed Vin’s bandages. He was looking considerably better and she made a decision. "I need to go for supplies. You be okay? It’s a good day trip there and back."
Vin nodded once.
"I wanna stay with Vin, momma. Can I? Please?" Mattie begged.
Lucy frowned. She thought Mattie had finally accepted the fact Tanner would not be staying with them. Still, the child wanted to spend as much time as she could with him before he did leave. While Lucy did not relish the idea, knowing Tanner was not a murderer, she did agree to allow her to stay.
"That’s up to Mister Tanner. He may not be up to chasing after you."
Mattie turned to the young tracker, imploring, "I'll be really good! I promise! Please, Vin?"
He looked at Lucy. "Go on. We’ll be fine, won’t we, Mattie?"
The child’s expression broke into a wide smile. "Yeah!"
Lucy gathered her purse and hat. "Is there anything I can get for you while I’m there, Mister Tanner?"
"Could ya send a telegraph?" he asked hopefully.
She shook her head. "There isn’t one. It’s just a small store and a saloon at a wide place in the road. But it saves a three day trip to Eagle Bend for necessities." Lucy gave him a studying look. "Are you sure Mattie won’t be a problem? I can take her with me."
"She’ll be fine."
"Well, don’t say I didn’t warn you. She’ll talk your ear off."
He gave her a small smile. "Might be kinda nice."
"If you get up, move careful, or you’ll start bleeding again and I don’t think Mattie could handle that."
"I’ll take it slow," Vin assured her, gracing her with a small lopsided grin.
"Well, I’ll be off then. I’ll be back before nightfall." She moved for the door.
"Be careful," Vin called after her and she turned back, giving him a long look before going out to hitch the mule and give her daughter last minute instructions.
Lucy had barely driven from the yard before Vin was sitting on the edge of the bed. He still felt lightheaded, but as that passed, he carefully pushed to his feet and stood.
Mattie came in and stopped in her tracks. "You shouldn’t be doing that," she intoned somberly.
"Momma said you were hurt bad and you shouldn’t be moving around," she repeated solemnly.
"Well, ‘tween ya and me," he stage whispered, " I’ve been hurt worse ‘an this a time or two."
Her blue eyes grew large. "You have?"
He slowly crossed to sit in the chair and nodded as he realized he was a little weaker than what he had thought. "Got rolled on by my horse once when I’s huntin’ buffalo....." he continued on, talking about buffalo, and Indians, Chris and Ezra, Casey and the other folks in Four Corners..
Mattie ate it up. Visitors, especially visitors who told such wonderful stories, were few and far between and she reveled in their telling, begging for more each time he fell silent.
Finally, talked out, in an effort to distract her, Vin stood and moved outside, his steps slow and cautious. Mattie followed beside him, hovering. He made it to the coolness of the barn and collapsed against several hay bales. After reassuring Mattie he just needed a moment to rest, the tracker let her scamper off to find the kittens she wanted to show him. She returned shortly with two tiny balls of fuzz and handed him one. It mewed softly as he gently stroked its fur.
The child happily babbled about the kittens and everything she could think of. Vin listened intently as she chattered on, as only a lonely child could, seeing in her a younger version of himself. Then returning the kittens to their mother, she came back, all seriousness, fussing over him as Vin stood to start back to the house.
Mattie reached out to take his hand and he smiled as they stepped out into the bright afternoon sun. He froze, his grip tightening on her hand.
There in the yard, big as life and twice as ugly, sat the four bounty hunters.
Lucy reined ol’ Mike to the rail, her gray eyes going to the half dozen or so horses standing hipshot in the noon day sun. The animals looked weary and were dust covered as if they had come a long way in a short time.
As she stepped up on the boardwalk, six strange men came out of the store. They gave her a cursory glance as they moved on up the street to the small saloon and Lucy automatically pegged them as bounty hunters.
She went inside and quickly gathered her supplies. As the clerk totaled them, she nodded toward the horses. "New faces in town?" she pried.
"Don’t you know who those men are?" She shook her head. "Them’s those regulators Judge Travis hired to protect Four Corners."
"What are they doing here?" she questioned, a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach.
"They were asking questions about some young fella..."
He was busy with his totaling and didn’t see her face pale. She quickly paid, gathered the items and stepped outside. As she exited, Lucy inadvertently collided with one of the riders as they moved up the street to their horses.
His dark eyes sparkled and he smiled widely beneath his thick mustache as he reached out to steady her. "Good day, ma’am."
"C’mon, Buck, we ain’t got time for socializin’," the man in black called out.
"I was just wishin’ this pretty lady a nice day," the mustached man groused as he moved to mount up.
The other riders reined back in the street to wait on him as he turned to tip his hat to her.
"C’mon, Buck..." the man in black growled again.
"Don’t get your reins in a knot, Chris, I’m comin’."
Lucy spun around, eyeing the man in black who sat his horse not three feet from her. "Are you Mary’s Chris?" she blurted out without thinking.
His blue green eyes flared wide in surprise as he reined back the black gelding and Lucy got the distinct impression this was not a man who was surprised often.
He swung down in one graceful movement and swiftly approached her, his long black duster whipping about his legs. "How would you know that?" he whispered.
This she realized was a very dangerous man, not one to be trifled with. She swallowed hard and spoke softly, "Your friend told me."
Larabee’s expression hardened for a moment. "What friend’s that?"
Lucy smiled slightly. "The one who calls you Cowboy."
She saw him visibly relax as he stepped closer to her. "Is he all right?" He turned to the other riders, "Boys, hold up." He turned back to her. "Where is he?"
As the riders dismounted and gathered around her, she quickly related the events after Mattie’s discovery of the injured man. As she talked Lucy studied the faces of the men and saw them change as they realized the tracker was alive. And as they quickly introduced themselves, she realized these were the people Tanner had babbled about in his delirium.
Vin shoved Mattie behind him as the leader of the bounty hunters coldly smiled down at him.
"Ya led us a merry chase, boy. Ol’ Cobb there, thought sure ya’s dead, but I knew better. Ye’re too stubborn to die." He dismounted and approached the light haired tracker. "Can’t believe ya’s here the entire time." He motioned to Mattie, trying to coax her away from Vin but she refused to move. "Where’s yer momma, little girl?"
She clung desperately to Vin’s hand, pressing closer to him.
"Let’er be," Vin warned, his voice deadly soft as he flashed back to Casey. Now another innocent was at risk because of him..
The man stared at him, his dirty face thoughtful. "Ya know, tracker, we let that other little gal go and that’s a mistake. We hadda drug her along, we wouldn’t lost ya. Not this time." He motioned one of his men toward the barn. "Go saddle a horse." He turned back. "Ye’re both comin’ with us."
Vin’s blue eyes glittered fire. "She’s got nothin’ ta do with this!"
The man sneered as he moved closer. Grabbing Vin’s arm he began binding his wrists with rawhide. The tracker attempted to struggle, but with a hard shove, the man pushed Vin to his knees. With a vicious jerk which dragged a choked moan from the young man’s lips, he wrapped his hand in Vin’s long hair and forced his head around until he was staring at the terrorized child. Pointing his gun at the girl, the bounty hunter roughly muttered, "Choice is yourn, tracker. She goes with us or ya watch her die here."
Mattie’s terror stricken blue eyes were wide and welling with tears as she stared at Vin, her visible fear wrenching at his heart. Sinking back down on his heels, he nodded. "All right I’ll go quiet. Jist don’t hurt her."
The bounty hunters laughed as they jerked him to his feet. "She’ll be fine, long as ya behave yerself." With a hard shove, Vin was pushed toward the child. "Now mount up so we can get the hell outta here."
Vin, wrists secured and his ribs protesting the rough treatment awkwardly mounted the horse. With a suppressed groan of pain, he hunched over in the saddle and pulled Mattie up in front of him. Straightening, he grimaced as he felt the warm flow of blood trickling down his side. Ignoring it as he settled Mattie in the protection of his arms he let the bounty hunters lead his horse out of the yard.
Larabee’s silence unnerved Lucy as they drew nearer her homestead. The six men rode steady and quiet beside her and although she had heard Tanner mention these men in his delirium, the fact Larabee was a gunslinger and a lawman concerned her. She finally urged the wagon up next to his horse. "Mister Larabee?"
Blue green eyes swung around to settle questioningly on her, his face an unreadable mask.
"You...you’re not gonna arrest Mister Tanner, are you?" she asked hesitantly, still not sure of their motives.
A quick flashing smile flittered across the gunman’s face, warming his eyes and replacing the hard angles, making him almost handsome. "Arrest Vin?" There was a hint of humor in his voice and his eyes at the very suggestion. "No, ma’am..."
"But you’re lawmen and surely you know about Texas," she pressed.
"Vin was framed, ma’am. Sure and for certain, he’s no murderer." He spoke with such conviction she was taken back.
The large man on the other side of Larabee spoke up, "Brother Vin has a..."
"Oh, no!" Her sudden cry brought all eyes to her. "No! " She whipped the old mule, urging him faster.
"What?" Larabee was instantly on the alert, as were the other men.
They gave her a puzzled look. "What? How can you tell?" Buck's questions rose over the others’ voices.
"There’s no smoke. The front door is open. My saddle mare is missing from the corral and the gate is down."
"Maybe they went for a ride?" JD pointed out.
"Mr. Tanner was in no condition to ride!" She drew rein by the door and jumped from the wagon, racing inside, calling her daughter’s name. There was no answer.
"Chris..." Buck’s low voice got their leader’s attention. "Lookee here..." he pointed to the ground and Larabee swung down to look closer, "fresh tracks."
"Four came in, five went out." The men exchanged looks as Chris studied the ground. "There’s Vin’s tracks and the little girl’s." He pressed his lip into a hard line. "Shit!"
Lucy came running from the house, headed for the barn.
Josiah caught her arm. "They ain’t there, ma’am."
She stared at him, her eyes frantic. "What...?"
Chris looked away letting Buck quietly explain what the tracks showed.
She blanched and leaned against the doorjamb. "Why...why take Mattie?" she whispered in disbelief.
"Insurance," Chris muttered bitterly.
She shook her head. "I don’t understand. For what?"
"They know Vin wouldn’t make trouble if they took your daughter along," Buck explained softly.
"Or they’ll hurt her," she finished, her face pale. "Mister Tanner wouldn’t..."
"No, ma’am," Chris spoke finally. "Vin won’t endanger your little girl."
It sank in. "Then...then...they’ll take him to Texas and hang him."
"Yes, ma’am, that they will."
The young woman straightened, her gray eyes flashing in her pale face. "But you’re not going to let that happen, are you, Mister Larabee?"
Fierce blue green eyes locked with her own. "No, ma’am, we ain’t." He swung up into his saddle and the other men followed suit.
Lucy hurriedly headed for the barn.
"Ma’am?" Buck’s call gave her pause and when she turned, he explained,. "You’d best stay here."
"You don’t understand, gentlemen, that’s my daughter!"
Chris urged his horse over by her and looked down into her face. "You don’t understand, ma’am...that’s our friend. We need to ride fast and if by some chance, they let your little girl go, you should be here for her."
Chris’s horse danced beneath him, but he steadied it to speak softly to her. "We’ll bring your daughter back, ma’am." It was a promise.
"And Mister Tanner, too?" she questioned softly, as the realization dawned the man she was going to turn in for money held her daughter’s life in his hands.
"Yes, ma’am." The riders all spoke at the same time and touching their hats, they spurred their horses from the yard, leaving her to stare after them.
Tanner clung to the saddle horn, trying to keep his balance as the little mare picked her way behind the bounty hunter’s gelding. He could feel the wet stickiness of blood still seeping down his side but he made no move to check his condition, afraid it would alarm Mattie.
Earlier she had turned to look up in his face. "Is Chris and Ezra and Buck gonna come rescue us?" she asked hopefully.
As much as he wanted to lie to her, he knew false hope was the most harmful kind. With a sad shake of his head he spoke softly. "Reckon not."
Her optimistic expression fell and as she looked up and seeing his despairing look, Mattie gently laid her hand atop his, but it was small solace to either of them.
Seeing the light of hope fade from her eyes tore Vin’s heart in two. Maybe his childhood pleas had never been answered, but seeing her eyes beseeching him to do something with her child like simplicity, he whispered a prayer. But the only answer he heard was the wind.
Now the child was finally asleep, her weight against his uninjured side. His ribs protested the pressure, but there was no way he was going to surrender her to one of the bounty hunters. She had remained remarkably quiet, seeming to understand the seriousness of their situation.
Vin had murmured to her, reassuring her it would be all right as he held her protected in the shelter of his arms. Now that she was asleep, he studied the hunters and realized the circumstances were not good. He knew there was no way he would jeopardize the child, and if he had to ride quiet all the way to Tascosa, then he would for her sake.
He swayed in the saddle and caught himself with a muffled groan. He knew his body was pushed past the point of no return, but he continued to fight it. He couldn’t....he wouldn’t abandon Mattie to the bounty hunters.
'You’re a Tanner....'
He heard his mother’s words echoing in his mind. Taking a deep breath, he focused his pain filled eyes on the surrounding countryside, taking in the broken line of boulders ahead and the lack of trees. With no cover, he would not have risked escape even if he had been alone.
Vin blinked to clear his eyes and bent slightly to rub them against his sleeve, causing Mattie to murmur in her sleep, but not awaken. He looked toward the rocks again. There--a quick bright flash of light.
Thankfully his captors were deep in conversation, making their plans for his bounty, and not paying attention to the surroundings.
He looked at the spot again and for a brief moment, saw the wink of light a second time. A small smile touched his lips. He knew that flicker of light. It was sunlight reflecting off a spyglass. And if it was a spyglass, then...
Tanner shook his head. He could be seeing things, or maybe it was just the sun’s reflection on quartz rock. It could have been anything. He was grasping at straws. Even if it was a spyglass, there was no reason for it to be his glass.... The odds were, well, more than even Ezra would bet on. Still, he had lent his glass to JD when the younger man had taken Casey out to look for wild horses.
A tiny glimmer of illogical hope sparked in his mind. He had to stay in the saddle until they were closer to the rocks. His pain drugged mind slowly turned as he tried to think of a plan of action. If his friends were there.... but could he risk his life--Mattie’s life--on such a slim chance?
Distracted, he wasn’t aware when the bounty hunter turned and saw his vacant look. With a sadistic sneer, the man spurred his horse into a canter, dragging the protesting little mare along. As she fought the lead line, she suddenly crow hopped sideways.
Caught off balance, Vin lost his seat and hampered by his injuries and Mattie, fell, dragging the child down with him. She let out a terrified cry as she landed on him. He groaned as his injured ribs and abused body made contact with the hard ground. Clinging to semi consciousness, the tracker managed to push the child down beside him, protecting her body with his own.
The bounty hunters spun at the sight of their prisoners falling. Swearing bitterly at each other, they reined up to turn back.
Shots rang out and two of the men fell, the others ducking and spurring their horses away as six men raced from the rocks, a man in black leading them.
He and another rider peeled off, reining for the man on the ground as the others hastened after the fleeing bounty hunters.
Chris was off his horse before it stopped, his long running strides taking him the remaining distance to where Vin lay unmoving. He heard the little girl's cry of fear at his approach, but he gave her a quick smile as he knelt by Tanner. He looked up and over his shoulder as Nathan came up to kneel down beside him.
"It’s okay, Mattie. We’re here to help Vin," Chris reassured her. Yet his blue-green eyes flared wide at the sight of blood staining her clothes. "Nathan..."
The healer did a quick visual check, shaking his head. "It’s not hers. It’s Vin’s." Nathan gently eased the unconscious man over, trading anxious looks with Chris at the sight of the wet glistening crimson staining the slight tracker’s shirt and pants.
"Damn!" Chris swore, for the moment forgetting the little girl.
Nathan bent to check the tracker’s injuries and Chris sat steely eyed beside him,. He was only vaguely aware when Ezra dismounted near them and approached, silently watching Nathan.
Seeing the little girl beside Chris, the gambler knelt down on one knee and smiled at her. "You must be Miss Mattie," he proclaimed, motioning her away from Chris who did not seem to notice. "You are the very image of your mother."
Mattie studied the cardsharp, scowling. "You know momma?" she asked, her voice distrustful.
"Yes, darlin’, I met her. She’s an alluring woman and most anxious for your safe return."
The statement caught the gambler off guard and he frowned slightly. "How ever do you know that?" he questioned.
"Vin told me. He said you were a good man to have as a friend, but you use mighty big words and you cheat at cards."
He ducked his head, astonished by Vin’s description and murmured, "He did, did he?"
She nodded as she looked at the man on the ground, her eyes shimmering. "Those men hurt Vin. He didn’t do anything to them and they hurt him. Why did they do that?"
Ezra gathered her in his arms and stood, holding her close to him. "Well, darlin’, some men just enjoy being mean to others."
Staring at Vin, Mattie slowly nodded, speaking with wisdom beyond her years, "I reckon they do. They’re gonna help Vin, aren’t they?" she asked, her eyes still on the three men on the ground.
"Yes, honey, they are. Nathan’s a healer."
"And you’re all Vin’s friends," she added wisely.
"That we are, darlin’, that we are," he acceded as he settled her on the rock beside him to await the return of the others. As his distressed green gaze moved back to the man lying so still on the ground, he realized Vin Tanner was indeed one of his friends. One of his few friends. One of the very few who accepted him as the card sharp, slick talking con man he really was. It was as if the tracker knew what he was and didn’t expect him to do or be more, but was secretly pleased when he was. Vin accepted him, and asked nothing in return. He had since that first meeting in the saloon when even then, Tanner had called him "Pard"...
"We caught one!" Buck informed them as he rode up and dismounted. Reaching up, he roughly dragged the bounty hunter from his horse. "Got back Vin’s horse, too."
Attempting bravado, the man looked to where Nate and Chris were hovering over Tanner. "Son of a bitch dies, I still get my cut of that bounty," he called out loudly, his voice brazenly smug.
With an inarticulate growl, Chris pushed from the ground and in three long strides crossed the distance separating them. "That son of a bitch is my friend! " he snarled, his fist smashing into the man’s jaw.
Ezra moved to block Mattie’s view as Chris waded in on the man, landing blow after punishing blow, driving the man to his knees.
It was Josiah who finally reached out a strong hand and caught Chris’ arm.
Spinning, fists raised to attack, Chris’s enraged green eyes locked with the former preacher’s calm blue gray ones.
The big man gave him a small smile. "Brother Chris, it is for the Lord to punish the wicked."
Blinking rapidly for several seconds, Chris finally regained control. Releasing his hold on the man he watched him crumpled into a bloody beaten pulp on the ground. Giving Josiah a small nod as he swiped his hair out of his eyes, he murmured, "That was for Vin."
Buck moved closer and prodded the unmoving man on the ground with the end of his rifle barrel. Mocking exasperation, he turned to Chris. "Ah, shit, Chris, you didn’t leave enough for me," he motioned toward the gambler, "or Ezra."
"Thank you, no, Mr. Wilmington." Ezra flicked a piece of dirt from his sleeve and straightened his cuffs. "I prefer to allow the judicial system of this great country to discipline the nefarious wrongdoers." He looked at Vin and brought bitter green eyes back to the bounty hunter, his voice taking on an unaccustomed coldness, "However this one time I might be persuaded otherwise."
Josiah, in an attempt to change the charged atmosphere, motioned toward the sky. "I might suggest we set up camp."
Nathan spoke up, "It wouldn’t hurt. We won’t be movin’ Vin no time soon."
In short order, a small camp was made, the horses tended, and a pot of coffee brewed on the fire. No one seemed in a mood to eat, but Josiah fixed a small meal for the child.
Ezra made sure Mattie ate, then settled her in his bedroll. She was asleep in moments, totally exhausted, and covering her against the night’s chill, the gambler moved toward the other men congregated near Vin’s unmoving form.
"What’dya think, Ezra?" Buck questioned as he poured himself a cup of coffee.
"Pray tell, concerning what, Mr. Wilmington?"
"Nate says Vin ain’t gonna be going anywhere for a few days. Josiah thinks we should take the bounty hunter to Four Corners to be tried for attempted murder and kidnapping."
"And Mattie should be returned to her mother," JD added.
"Poor woman must be distressed out of her mind about that child," Ezra muttered softly, then, "Makes sense. Who goes and who stays?"
"I’m stayin’," Chris spoke up in no uncertain terms, stating what they all already knew. "And Nathan."
"Little girl likes you, Ezra," JD remarked.
The card sharp smiled. "Most members of the opposite sex do, Mister Dunne."
"Me and JD’ll take the prisoner. I don’t think he’ll give us any trouble." Josiah offered.
"Don’t I have any say?" JD groused.
"You’re the sheriff and you need to guard your prisoner," Josiah pointed out bluntly.
They looked to Buck. "If you all don’t need me, I’ll stay here."
Ezra and Josiah exchanged looks. They knew the man had a point. If something happened to Tanner, he could be there for Larabee.
They nodded and finishing the last of their coffee, they moved to check on Vin, then knowing they had long rides ahead of them on the morrow, scattered to their bedrolls, all except Chris. He settled on the ground beside the tracker, keeping vigil at his friend’s side.
Buck awoke in the still grayness of dawn and lay silently watching Chris and Nate hovering over the still unconscious tracker. The others had left the previous day and it was just the three of them--and Vin.
With nothing to do but wait, the normally happy go lucky man had plenty of time to think. He was probably Chris Larabee’s oldest friend, but he really did not know the man. He had, a long time ago, before Sarah and Adam's deaths. Their loss had turned the man he knew as his best friend into a silent, brooding, whiskey drinking man bent on vengence. Their deaths had shattered his friend, turning him into a cold hearted relentless searcher for their murderer, a man trying to drown his survivor’s guilt in the bottom of a whiskey bottle.
But, the murders of Sarah and Adam had affected Buck as well. They had been a part of his family, if not by blood, then in spirit. Their deaths had changed him too, but had devastated Chris. He had escaped within himself, going so deep inside nothing or no one could reach him, not even his best friend. If he couldn’t be reached, he couldn’t be hurt.
Then, Tanner had appeared. Something in the lonely tracker had struck a cord in Larabee that day on the street. Buck didn’t know what, and probably never would, but he had seen Chris react, reaching out to help someone for the first time since his family’s death. It was a small beginning, one which had brought Buck and Chris back together and for that Buck could not begrudge the tracker. Still, it had hurt Buck to see the sharpshooter usurp his place at Chris’ right hand, but he had come to realize if he could not stand at his friend’s side to protect him, he knew the tracker would be.
Rolling to his feet, Buck poured a cup of coffee left from the previous night. It was scalding hot and bitingly bitter. With a grimace he tossed it aside and started a fresh pot.
He glanced at his friends as he worked silently. Larabee was still at Vin’s side and Buck could see him slipping deeper and deeper inside himself again, just as he had after Sarah and Adam’s deaths. He knew Nathan was seeing it too as the black healer looked hopelessly at the tracker, knowing somehow if they lost him, they would lose Chris.
Fixing a meager breakfast, Buck approached Chris offering him a plate. When Larabee refused with a small shake of his head. Buck settled down beside him, half heartedly picking at the food. "Ya need to eat, Chris," he admonished softly.
Larabee gave a curt shake of his head. "I’m fine, Buck," but his worry-lined face said otherwise.
"Vin’s a fighter."
"Yeah, but he’s in bad shape, Buck."
Buck could only nod as he stared at the tracker’s still face. Unguarded, defenses down he looked peaceful and vulnerable and so very young "Ya know, I never thought on it before, but he ain’t much older’n JD, is he?"
"He’s just a kid," Chris agreed. "Still green and wet behind the ears."
"I’d not let him hear you say that. That boy’s lived a lotta miles, Chris."
"Yeah, he’s traveled a lotta roads at that. We all have," the gunslinger added drolly. "He’s a good man to have at your back," he added.
"Oh, and what am I? Buffalo droppin’s?" Buck responded in mock indignation.
"Hell, Buck, some pretty skirt go walkin’ by, I’s on my own and ya know it."
"Well, guess you’re right there," Buck admitted, "but what about down Abilene way?" He saw a grin come to Chris’ face. "That blond saloon girl. What was her name?"
Chris looked down, a slight smile on his lips. "You’re never gonna let me forget that, are ya?"
Buck grinned widely and shook his head. "Maybe when hell freezes over. They damn near hung me before you could drag yourself away from her.....charms. " He absently rubbed at his throat as if he could still feel the rough hemp noose. Suddenly sobered, Buck fell silent, his gaze settling back on the still form of their friend as Buck realized a noose just like that one awaited Tanner in Tascosa.
They sat quietly then outta the blue, Chris spoke. "We gotta get that Tascosa charge dropped, Buck. He’s too good a man to swing."
Buck nodded, "Especially for something he didn’t do." A slow smile came back to his face. "Now you and I, there's plenty we did and some of it mighta earned us a rope before you settled down with Sarah."
Buck mentally kicked himself as Chris’ relaxed expression hardened and the old mask fell back into place. Damn! Why was he always conjuring up the past by opening his big mouth without thinking?
It hit Buck then--Vin had replaced him at Chris’ right hand because he had no connection to Chris’ past. He had no ties to Sarah and Adam, no links to the man’s previous life. He was just--Vin. Nothing more. And Chris needed that, not someone hauling around the baggage of his past and all the painful memories of his loss.
The approaching sound of hoof beats broke the somber mood and instantly put both men on the alert. Seeing the flash of a familiar red coat they relaxed.
Ezra dismounted and crossed to where they sat, closely followed by Josiah. "Is there any alteration in Mister Tanner’s condition?" he questioned without greeting.
Buck shook his head. "He’s holdin’ his own, but he ain’t woke up yet."
The gambler frowned. "That’s not good, is it?"
"Nate ain’t sure."
"We thought you could use some supplies," Josiah offered, dropping two bulging saddlebags by the fire.
"Ezra, ya get that little girl home okay?" Chris questioned.
"Miss Mattie is safely back in the protective arms of her mother, whom I must add was more than appreciative for the unscathed return of her child. And the bounty hunter is securely incarcerated under the watchful eye of Mr. Dunne until the Judge arrives."
Chris nodded and the two men wandered over to check on the tracker for themselves before moving to tend their horses.
As the sun began to edge behind the mountains, the five men gathered around the fire, coffee cups in hand, except for Chris who had a bottle of whiskey which Ezra had thoughtfully tucked into their supplies.
Nathan shook his head, his voice weary and dismayed.. "I honestly don’t know. He should have woke up by now but maybe his body needs all this time to heal itself. He lost a lot of blood and was in pretty bad shape."
"He got a fever?" Josiah questioned, sipping at his coffee.
"That broke yesterday."
"Body ...might.... could get... some rest iffen..... ya’ll’d pipe down...." The words weren’t more than a husky whisper.
Yet five men turned as one.
Clear blue eyes filled with life reflected back at them in the firelight.
"What’s....a fella.......do t’get .....drink........’round.......here?" The husky voice was a little stronger as the tracker attempted to sit up then thought better of it.
"Shit!!" A wide smile came to Chris’ face as he gained his feet.
Buck let out a triumphant whoop and danced an impromptu jig around the fire, stumbling over Josiah’s legs and landing in a heap on the ground next to the former preacher who gave him a wide smile and a hardy slap on the back..
Ezra looked about, flashed a bright smile and straightened his cuffs. "I do believe our Mister Tanner is back amongst the living."
Nathan moved to check his patient, supporting Vin’s head as he took several long swallows of water.
"Thanks." The tracker leaned back, closing his eyes only to open them and look about realizing he was resting on Chris’ bedroll. "Where’s Mattie?"
"Safely back in her mother’s loving care, Mister Tanner, a mother who asked me to impart a message to you."
Vin ducked his head. "Ah, hell, Ez, what’dya tell her?"
"Nothing but the truth, Mister Tanner, which that sweet child collaborated of how you jeopardized your life to save her own."
"Ah, hell..." Vin repeated.
"She said I was to impart to you Tascosa is in err. That five hundred dollars wasn’t even close, because in her eyes, you are inestimable."
"Inestimable?" Vin mouthed wearily. "That like worthless?"
"No indeed, Mister Tanner. It denotes there is no amount equivalent to you."
As Buck looked at Chris and saw the relief flood across his old friend’s face, he realized Mattie's mom had it right. "I’ll second that," he muttered softly.
Nathan managed to keep the tracker down for five days after his return to Four Corners. He had hoped for two weeks, but Vin Tanner, never one for being fussed over or confined, was out and sleeping under the stars by the fifth night.
On the seventh day, Vin rode into town, still favoring his side slightly but looking more like himself with the bruising finally beginning to fade from his face. He made his way to the saloon and stood at the bar, listening and watching like old times. Those who knew him had come to realize he stood at the bar so he could watch who came and went. On his feet he could run if he had to...
As the others scattered to their various doings, the sharpshooter followed Ezra out and caught up with him on the boardwalk. "Hey, Ezra..."
The cardsharp turned and waited for him to approach.
"Need to talk to ya."
Ezra motioned for him to walk along as he moved for the hotel. "What can I do for you, Mister Tanner?"
"I know ya have a little money put back.....for yer saloon buyin’ " Vin hesitated, chewing at his lip, then blurted out, "I need ta borrow some."
Ezra smiled. "As I recall you still owe me financial restitution for the interest on that loan to Miz Wells."
"Yeah, well..." The tracker was clearly flustered, searching for an answer which would satisfy the gambler..
Ezra looked him full in the face, all seriousness. "May I inquire as to your need for monetary assistance?"
"Ya mean why do I want it?" Ezra nodded and Vin looked away scowling as if embarrassed. "I wanna help out Mattie's mom." He studied the ground. "She could’d turned me in fer the bounty. Was thinkin’ maybe I could borrow enough ta fix up her roof and mend the fences..." he trailed off. "Ah, hell, ferget it. Was a silly idea..." He started to walk away.
Ezra realized what it had cost the young man to even approach him, let alone ask for his help . He called out softly. "Do you have an approximate tally in mind?"
Vin turned back. . "Thirty-thirty five dollars. I’d give it back when the judge pays us the end of the month."
"That amount would not allocate you funds for the ensuing month," Ezra pointed out.
The tracker shrugged. "Don’t need much."
Ezra looked away, his expression thoughtful, then with a quick smile he nodded. "I’ll have it for you tonight."
As Vin sat down to eat his supper, he found himself suddenly surrounded by his friends as without a word, they each placed money on the table. Tallying the coins to over fifty dollars, Vin shot a veiled look of surprise at Ezra. .
The gambler gave him a wide smile. "I said I would secure you the money, Mister Tanner. I didn’t say from whence it would come." It had secretly pleased him the tracker had asked for his assistance and pleased him even more to confidentially approach the others on the tracker’s behalf.
Chris straddled the chair next to the sharpshooter. "We just wanna help out, Vin."
"We all pitched in, even Miz Travis and Miz Wells," JD blurted out.
Vin’s expression was puzzled, his voice a mere whisper. "Why...why’dya all do that?" he questioned, his long fingers toying with his whiskey glass, his blue eyes not meeting theirs.
Buck smiled widely, "Why, Cowboy, that’s what friends do...help each other out."
Vin ducked his head, shaking it in disbelief.
Josiah’s voice was soft as he gently patted the young tracker’s shoulder. "Guess maybe Brother Vin here ain’t use to gettin’ help from other folks."
"Ya got that right," Vin muttered under his breath, his soft words bringing a smile to Chris’ face. The tracker slowly straightened and looked up. "I...I can’t take yer money..." he began, then trailed off, stunned by the hurt disappointment he saw on the faces of his friends. He started over. "I can’t let y’all pay fer..."
"For what, Mister Tanner?" Ezra’s question silenced him. "For showing our gratitude to Miz Garth? You, sir. are not the only one of our multifarious crew capable of emulating Robin Hood."
"Who you callin’ multifarious?" Buck demanded loudly. Nudging Josiah, he whispered, "What’s multifarious mean?"
"C’mon, Vin, let us help out." JD spoke hopefully.
"Yeah, don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, Vin," Buck implored softly.
"Friends help friends, Mister Tanner, and friends accept gracefully," Ezra smiled, "Even when they are guilty of spreading opprobrious rumors regarding one’s gambling practices."
Blue eyes stared across the table at smiling green eyes and Vin finally gave a slight nod. "All right, if it’ll get y’all off my back..." He murmured, ducking his head.
"You know, gentlemen, this little endeavor of Mister Tanner’s has merit. I, for one, would be most delighted to see Miss Mattie again. Perhaps I could prevail on you to permit me to accompany you, Mister Tanner?"
"Hey, why don’t we all ride out there? Vin’s gonna need help with them roofing supplies, unloading and all. Things are quiet in town." JD suggested.
"I got a mite experience with roofs," Josiah volunteered drolly.
"I know which end of the hammer to use," Nathan offered.
Vin’s expression of disbelief moved over his friends’ faces and suddenly he pushed to his feet and quickly hurried for the door and into the darkness beyond.
Ezra grabbed Buck’s arm as the amiable man stood to follow the tracker. "Let him go, Mister Wilmington."
"He all right?" Concern for the younger man had changed the man’s usual laughing expression to one of worry.
Ezra nodded. "I perceive our young friend is just overwhelmed and requires a few moments to himself." Yet it wasn’t two minutes later, the gambler slipped outside, his worried green gaze searching the street.
He found the tracker leaning against the hitching rail, both elbows resting on the wood, his back to the saloon, his eyes focused somewhere beyond the street.
"Mister Tanner?" Ezra stepped down beside him, his voice soft.
Bright blue eyes shimmered in the light reflected through the saloon windows as Vin turned to look up at him.
"Are you all right, sir?"
The tracker nodded once, afraid to trust his voice and looked away. Straightening, he finally spoke, his voice was husky with emotion. "I owe ya one, Ezra. A Tanner don’t ferget and they always pay their debts," he promised.
"With the exception of interest on short term loans," Standish teased, gratified to see the younger man smile. "I believe I still have something which belongs to you." He dug in his pocket and held out the item he had picked up in the dusty road days earlier and had been carrying with him since.
Vin turned, frowning, but a smile washed across his face as he took the mouth organ. "Thought it was lost fer sure when Buck gave me my coat and it weren’t in the pocket." He hit it gently against his leg to clear the dust, then blew softly into it. The sound emitting from it was not music, but seemed to please the young man. Lowering it, he spoke, "Right comfortin’ sound."
"If you’re a tumbleweed. Come, Mister Tanner, consent to me purchasing you a libation."
"If that means ya’re buyin’, I’m acceptin’," Vin agreed as he followed the gambler back inside where the other men were still gathered about their usual table, making plans.
"I promised Mary I’d take her for a picnic Saturday," Chris pointed out.
"Bring her and Billy along. Miz Garth would probably enjoy another woman to talk to, and Mattie could play with Billy," Nathan suggested.
"I could ask Casey..." JD waylaid Vin. "Will you ask Miz Wells if Casey can go along? She’ll let her if you ask."
Vin nodded, settling into the chair between Chris and Buck as Ezra silently slid a drink his way. He let out a slow sigh as the warmth and love surrounding the table drifted over him and seemed to seep deep into the pores of his skin, filling him with a contentment he had not known or felt in a long, long time. He may have spent his entire life alone, but here, and now there was no place else he wanted to be. No unanswered prayers or misplaced hopes. Raising the glass of whiskey to his lips he nodded toward Ezra and a small smile played across his features. Here and now, he belonged. Here and now, they all did.
(This story first appeared in Soundrels, Sinners and Saviors Issue 2 in November of 2000)