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Buck was sore. He and JD had ridden two days to Ridgehigh for
a prisoner pick up and two days back to Four Corners with
just enough breaks to eat and sleep. And while he would admit it was nice having seven peacekeepers in the relatively small
vicinity, he didn't quite think it was fair that just because some podunk town couldn't afford to spare their own sheriff for a
transfer, they had to help. Right now all he had on his mind was a stiff drink, a hot bath and a soft woman. In whatever order
they happened to come to him.
"Have a rough couple of days, boys? I know we did." Wilmington
swung himself from his horse and walked to where Chris
and Vin sat relaxing in front of the jailhouse. Behind him, JD took care of getting their criminal ward out of the saddle and into
the cool confines of a cell, grunting a weary salutation to his friends as he passed.
Vin squinted up at the dusty figure before him. "No, I think it's been pretty quiet around here. Chris?"
The glint in the blue eyes belied the serious expression on the face of the man sitting next to the tracker.
"Yeah, Vin. As a matter of fact I'd say quiet would be an understatement."
"I don't hear JD complainin' any." Vin added as the youngest member of their group joined them.
"That's 'cause he's too damn tired, ain't that right, kid."
"Yeah, I'm tired but no, there really isn't anything to complain about.
Munsler wasn't any trouble at all. It was Buck that pushed
us like we were gonna be late for a Saturday night dance. "Now 'scuse me, I'm hungry."
At the mention of food Buck gave up his attempt for sympathy. "I'm right behind ya, kid."
"A bit of lunch does sound good, Chris."
"Yeah, Vin, this sun does work up a man's appetite."
They shared a grin as Buck cast his best squint-eyed look in their direction.
The four men entered the saloon and drifted to where Ezra sat at his
usual gaming table in the back, stopping briefly at the bar to
put in a request for some lunch.
"Ya finally run outta suckers, Ezra?" asked Buck as he took one of the
empty chairs beside his friend who was leafing through a
"It is a temporary setback, I assure you. There happens to be
a stage due from Santa Luca tomorrow afternoon and I expect
by tomorrow evenin' I shall have won enough to put in my request for several of the items which have already caught my
attention from this establishment in New York."
"Afraid your wardrobe is gonna have to wait a bit longer, you and Vin
are taking Munsler the rest of the way, leaving tomorrow
The gambler's sly smile fell as he looked at Chris. "That is an attempt at humor, Mr. Larabee?"
''Sorry, Ezra. Buck and JD took the first leg. Nathan and Josiah are in Sweetwater, not due back till Tuesday."
"And you?" Standish asked pointedly.
Vin interrupted, answering for Chris. "I was there when Nathan
threatened him with bodily harm if he didn't give that leg a rest
for a least another week."
The gambler rose from his seat, not hiding his irritation. "What
an auspicious gunshot wound, how fortunate it didn't go any
higher and hit somethin' vital. Well, if you will excuse me, gentlemen, I apparently have a trip to get ready for." And with that
he tucked his catalog under his arm and stalked off.
The other four at least tried to stifle their laughter till the southerner was out of earshot.
"Yeah, go ahead and laugh," Vin realized after a moment, "I have to
ride with him."
The sun hadn't been up very long when Chris met Vin in front of the
jailhouse. The ex-buffalo hunter sat lounging, his lean legs
stretched out before him, a cup of coffee wrapped in his hands, enjoying the simple silence of the early morning.
Larabee stopped close next to Vin, cocked his head and looked the other man up and down.
His friend stared back with a questioning look, "What?"
"Don't see any bullet holes, didn't you wake Ezra yet?"
Tanner answered with a small smile, "You're the one who assigned him to this, maybe you should be keepin' your eyes open."
"Nah, this time of morning he's bound to miss." Chris pulled the
steaming mug from his partner's grasp and took a drink,
looking up and down the quiet thoroughfare.
A few moments passed before Vin glanced past Chris. "Gimme that
back," he said, motioning for the coffee, "I don't want any
blood to get in it."
Chris looked over his shoulder and saw a none-to-happy gambler making
his way toward them. The dark circles under his
eyes contrasted sharply with the crisp white shirt and elegant, indigo blue jacket he wore.
Vin raised his mug to Ezra in a hello toast, "Speak of the devil."
"Just one of his better looking disciples," Standish retorted in a growly,
morning voice. "If I didn't know better, Mr. Larabee, I
would suspect you were here to enjoy my misery."
To anyone else Chris's expression was disturbingly serious but to those
who knew him the light in his eyes and the raise of his
brows held an obvious mischievous glint.
"I promise you, Ezra, if I weren't afraid of Nathan's wrath, I'd go.
It's mighty cruel to put Vin through the amount of complaining
you're gonna layer on him over the next couple days."
"I'll be sure to save some for you. If you'll pardon me, I must attend to the horses."
Vin handed his coffee cup to Chris, "Think I'll just go help, don't
want him mad at me too."
The town was still quiet as Vin, Ezra and their handcuffed companion
saddled up and prepared to head out. Chris had taken
the seat in front of the jail and offered a final good luck to his friends.
"Day there, day back," then, glancing at Ezra, "and I'm sure you'll be spending the night once there. See ya 'round Monday."
Vin touched the brim of his hat, "Try not to let things fall apart while
I'm away, cowboy."
"You done flippin' through those damn things, Grey, I'm thirsty."
Rueben Craft held his left boot in his hand and rapped it sharply against
the side of the Los Partas' sheriff's desk. Earning him a
hard look from Deputy Stephen McColm, which the tall redhead was happy to ignore if it meant he didn't have to walk around
with those damn rocks in his feet.
"And you'll be richer if, outta this pile, I find another bounty to
bring in." His partner, Hamilton Grey, leaned his stocky build
against the wall of the jailhouse, a small stack of yellowed handbills in his grasp.
"Zeke Gurado, 200' 'One-Eye' Cascar, 350; hey, here's another one wanted
in Tuscosa. Ooh-wee, 500 dollars for a
Vin…Tamer? Tanner? Jeez, McColm, these are beat up enough, whad'ya do, spill coffee on 'em? Can't even make out the
description for this guy."
The deputy didn't even bother to acknowledge the bounty hunter with a look, just kept on cleaning his pistol as he responded.
"Ain't like you're gonna find him anyway. Or wait…" he added sarcastically,
"maybe he's over in the saloon right now, why
don't you take your partner and go look…an' get the hell outta my jail."
Craft had his boot pulled back on and was headed for the door, "C'mon
Grey, we may not have enough for a hotel tonight but
we sure got what it takes between us for a handful of beers. And if I gotta spend the night camped out in the desert I wanna
make sure I'm damned good and drunk first."
"Keep an eye on our boy, Deputy, he's worth a sweet six hundred and fifty dollars soon as we get him back to Tuscosa."
McColm looked up at the two men as they left, "Just make sure you get
him outta here 'fore midnight. Otherwise it'll be ten
tomorrow morning when you get him back. I ain't comin' in early just for you two."
The deputy watched the bounty hunters go, happy to see them leave.
The boy they had brought in was curled on a cot in one
of two cells of the jailhouse, his face to the wall. McColm felt bad for the kid, an emotion he didn't feel often. He had crossed
the path of Grey and Craft enough times to know that while the bounty the Texas-owned bank had put up for the boy was
guaranteed only if alive, it didn't say what condition the prisoner had to be in when he arrived for trial.
The kid didn't look any more that eighteen. Had an obvious black
eye and a mean scrape across his left cheek when the
hunters brought him in. And God help him if the two got liquored up before coming back.
McColm had told them about the old jailhouse that stood outside town, a structure left over from the earlier days of Los
Partas. They could stay there for free and be mostly out of the elements. 'Course, the deputy didn't care where they stayed just
as long as it was away from him.
The trip to Los Partas was as uneventful as the two peacekeepers could
have hoped for. Getting into the busy town shortly
after sundown Ezra escorted Munsler to the jailhouse while Vin, under strict direction from the dusty, tired gambler booked
rooms at the hotel. More of Standish's prodding had them taking in a dinner that was more than acceptable, even by the
southerner's fastidious tastes.
"Perhaps this little trip won't be as unfruitful as I had anticipated."
The two men stood at the bar of the saloon taking in the activity of the large room.
A red-faced, haggard looking bartender appeared seconds after Ezra lay
his coins on the bar and stared at them, awaiting their
"Mr. Tanner, allow me to buy you a drink, I have a very good feeling about tonight."
He turned his attention to the barkeep. "If, behind this bar, you have a fine bottle of whiskey, I would be forever in your debt."
The bartender stared back and forth at the odd pair, scooped some of
the coins into his hand and returned with a bottle of
Scotch whiskey and two glasses.
The older man lingered by the two a bit longer, finally speaking.
"That's a mighty fine jacket, son. Any chance you'd be willin'
to sell it?"
"My dear sir, while your taste in clothes is admirable, I'm fairly certain
your girth would most likely severely stress the confines
of this fabric."
The older man stared at Ezra for a moment, his brow furrowed.
"Not you, boy," he replied with a snort before looking to Vin.
Tanner held a subtle hand over his mouth, trying to cover the smile over Ezra's misinterpretation.
"Uh, no. It's kinda a favorite of mine."
As the bartender turned his attention to a pair of men that approached
the bar at Vin's side, the tracker took the bottle of
whiskey and poured two shots before raising a glass appreciatively in a toast to himself.
"Vin Tanner, you deserve this."
"May Lady Luck smile on me tonight," Ezra added with a grin wide enough to show his gold tooth.
They shot back their drinks and Vin poured them another.
Ezra sipped this one gently and spoke again, oblivious to the two men next to Vin straining to hear what else he had to say.
"Evenin's like this, when everythin' feels as if it's goin' to go your
way; one can almost forget about things such as past
transgressions, skipped bails or towns like Tuscosa."
"Almost," Vin replied quietly with a half-smile.
Tanner followed Ezra as the gambler collected the whiskey bottle off
the bar and made his way to one of the several poker
tables that held empty chairs.
Rueben Craft's eyes locked with his partner's, not believing what he
had just heard but at the same time knowing that there had
been no mistake.
The bartender addressed them, "You want two more beers?"
Grey tried to hide his emotion as he dug a few coins from his pocket
and passed them over the bar.
"Yeah, couple more would be fine, and uh…maybe you could answer a question. We're supposed to be meetin' a man here,
gonna get us hooked up with a cattle drive. Name of Tanner, Vin Tanner. Don't suppose ya know him?"
The older man pulled the beers and set them on the bar before responding.
"Well, I don't know him but that fella who was just
standin' here matches the name."
He nodded his head in the direction of the poker table and continued
as he was called to the other end of the bar, "The one with
that nice coat."
Craft and Grey smiled in disbelief as they looked to the two gentlemen taking seats at a small, round table.
"How nice of his partner to toast him." Rueben said in low tone to this colleague.
Hamilton shook his head with a short laugh. "I think Lady Luck
is smiling on someone tonight, but it sure as hell ain't Vin
Craft responded to his partner without looking at him, "Maybe I'll jus'
go place the horses by the hotel, then what's say we take
a couple seats in the corner and keep an eye on that 500 dollars in the fancy blue jacket."
The evening wore on, Vin and Ezra finished their bottle, the southerner
did well at seven card draw, Red High and Chicago and
when the two friends finally decided to call it a night, Craft and Grey were right behind them as they left.
A light breeze flicked strands of Vin's hair around his face and blew
a welcome freshness from the stale air of the saloon as he
and Ezra drifted up the empty street to their hotel.
Standish was relating a tale of the time he had shared a bottle of Scotch
whiskey with a lovely lady from the coast of Maine but
was regretfully unable to finish it before her two older brothers made an unscheduled appearance.
The tracker listened with half an ear as he stared up at the pinpoints
for light in the dark sky. He was vaguely aware of the two
figures following behind but as he had been the one to consume most of that night's bottle of Scotch whiskey, he really wasn't
paying them much attention. Something which he would regret deeply.
Craft and Grey waited until they approached the mouth of an alley then
struck at the same time, each wielding a heavy, wood
billy club. Rueben cracked Vin across the back of the head while Grey knocked Ezra to his knees with a fierce blow to the
base of the skull. Craft kicked his target viciously in the ribs to force the air from the brunette's lungs and prevent him from
The bounty hunters had performed this type of task enough times together
and knew how to quickly and efficiently take out their
Vin's intake of whiskey slowed his reflexes considerable and enhanced
the sense of disorientation he experienced as another
blow was delivered to the side of his head. A large piece of cloth was stuffed into Tanner's mouth but his attempt to remove it
was hampered as he felt his hands pulled tightly behind his back. The tracker grunted involuntarily when Craft secured his
wrists sharply with a pre-looped string of leather.
By forcing the wad of cotton fabric into their victims' mouths the hunters
achieved a horrible double effect. They could muffle
any vocalization that would attract unwanted attention while further adding to the confusion of their quarry. And confusion went
a long way toward disabling a victim.
Vin was trying to work the fabric out of his mouth; his legs kicked
out violently in a vain attempt to strike his attacker. But even
that defense was taken from him when Craft slammed the tip of his boot into Tanner's thigh to quiet him and wrapped a second
length of leather around Vin's ankles.
He had almost managed to spit out the cloth but Rueben was easily three
steps ahead. The redhead secured a bandana that
wedged the rag back in place and tied it at the back of Vin's aching skull. And finally, Craft pulled a small sack over Tanner's
head, efficiently blinding him.
The tracker continued to struggle against the bonds as he felt himself
dragged along his stomach and dumped on his side with his
back against a hard surface that he guessed was the wall of the building he and Ezra were next to when the attack came. Ezra.
Vin fought his spinning head and the panic of his own situation as he strained to hear anything that would tip him off to the
That's when the shots came. Two quick pops that some part of Vin's
shaky brain recognized as Ezra's Derringer. A guttural
cry that was not from Standish brought a bit of wicked satisfaction to Tanner as he realized that at least one bullet had found its
mark. But the triumph was short lived when a dull thud was followed with a muffled grunt that Vin did identify as coming from
"Sonofabitch shot me!"
"With what?! You got his guns. Check his hands!"
"You check 'em!"
Vin heard the man close to him move away. "Damn. Take a look at this."
Then what Tanner thought to be stifled curses from Ezra followed by the voice of the man who had been shot.
"I'm gonna kill him!" Another thud of a blow to a body and a strained groan.
"Kill him later, we gotta get outta here. Get the horses."
Then Vin's tormentor was back at his side. A strong hand wrapped
around the tracker's throat and slammed his head against
the wall he lay touching. Tanner swallowed hard, suppressing the wave of nausea that rolled through him.
"Sorry, son. You were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Guess that's what ya get for associating with wanted men,
like your friend Tanner, here."
Vin heard the approach of hooves as he tried to figure out what the hell the man was talking about.
"My advice to you is to forget you ever knew this murderer 'cause if
we see your face again, we'll shoot it off." A second slam
of Tanner's severely aching skull drove home the point.
"C'mon, Craft, I can't do this by myself."
"Relax, Grey, I'm comin'."
Again, the man called Craft moved from Vin. Nervous shifting of
three horses and grunts from the shooting victim let Tanner
know that they were most likely loading Ezra onto one of the beasts. Vin continued to struggle against the straps binding his
wrists but tried to keep his movement to a minimum. He didn't want to bring any more attention to himself since he knew that
would only bring more pain. And he had plenty already.
Once they had Standish resting unceremoniously face down behind the
saddle of one of the horses, Rueben inspected his
"Ya needed the whole shirt to wrap it?" the tall redhead asked sarcastically.
"'Scuse the hell outta me, I'd kinda like to keep my blood on the inside. Which is more than I can say for you, Tanner."
"Leave him be." Craft retorted sharply, trying to get a decent
look at the bullet wound in the dark of the alley. "It passed
through, but you're still bleedin' pretty good."
Rueben ignored the curse and rewrapped his colleague's arm. "I'll
sew it when we make camp. Sure as hell ain't the first time.
I'm gonna go get Norwich, you head out with Tanner, I'll catch up."
Vin sensed the men moving in opposite directions, two horses heading
north, one south. He fought the panic that came with the
suffocating feeling of having the rag in his mouth and the sack draped over his head.
'Okay,' he thought to himself, 'first things first.' The lean
brunette twisted and repositioned himself until he managed to shake the
small bag from his head. Good, he could see and breathe a little easier too, even if it was only through his nose.
The leather loop around his wrists had been secured quickly; consequently,
not very efficiently. It only took another minute and
Vin's hands were free. He ripped the bandana away from his head and pulled out the rag, but kept it to dab at the blood
matting a small patch of his hair. 'Confident bastards', they hadn't even bothered to take his sidearm.
He struggled to his feet, steadying himself with a hand against the
building as the dizziness brought on from his beating and the
whiskey threatened to drive him back down to the ground.
'What the hell is goin' on?' They were obviously bounty men, they
also obviously thought that Ezra was Vin. The one called
Rueben had mentioned something about getting Norwich, did that mean there were three of them?
'C'mon, Tanner, pull it together, you may be in bad shape but it's a sure bet you're a helluva lot better off than Ezra.'
Vin made his way to the stables, taking a moment to run water from the
trough over his face and the back of his neck before
indelicately rousing the groomsman from his bed to collect his horse. He had just lay the saddle across the back of Peso when
the dull clop of hooves thudded past.
Tanner ran to the open door of the barn hoping it would be what he thought.
Two horses, two riders, headed south. But even
in the faint light of the small street fires Vin could see the second horseman with his hands behind his back and the lead rider
holding the reins of the following roan.
'Guess Norwich ain't one of them.'
Vin finished strapping his saddle in place and secured the bit and reins,
then just before he mounted, the tracker checked his
two Winchesters. His head still throbbed as he spurred his horse from the stable but, he thought, not nearly as much as those
miserable bastards were going to hurt when he caught up with them.