Disclaimer: Do not own or pretend to own.
ON THE BOARDWALK
DAY ONE, NOON
The August sun blazed in the sky. Even the desert cactus that was trying to reclaim its territory at the edge of town seemed to wilt under it’s relentless glare. Chris and Vin had long since retreated to the shelter offered by the saloon porch. It didn't provide much relief from the heat but at least they were out of the sun. Vin watched a freight wagon roll by, dust roiling up in its wake. It's just too damned hot, he thought to himself. He wiped at a trickle of sweat that made its way down his forehead. He'd long since abandoned his buckskin coat in an attempt to cool off. He was beginning to understand the Mexican practice of taking a siesta during the day. Vin took a sidelong glance at Chris. He laughed softly. Looked like Larabee was in the middle of his siesta.
Turning back to the street, Vin lazily watched the flies land on the empty hitching rail in front of him. Movement on the boardwalk across the street caught his eye. Two men were leaving Mrs. Potter's store. Vin watched them for a few minutes. There was something familiar about the younger man, boy really, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it. Until he went to light up a smoke. He took a match and struck it on his gun.
“Damn! Billy Cobb.” Vin swore softly to himself. Vin reached over and nudged Chris awake.
"What is it?" he asked his hand slipping instinctively to the butt of his gun. He relaxed slightly when he didn't find any immediate danger and Vin just remained seated in the chair next to him.
"Got company," Vin drawled as he nodded his chin in the direction Cobb and his partner had taken. Chris's eyes quickly scanned the street until he found the two men.
"What about ‘em?" Chris asked as he eyed the men. One of the men was a large grizzled man who looked to be about fifty. He was dressed in a manner similar to Vin’s, and there was a large knife sheathed at his waist. He wore two pistols on his gunbelt. The other man was about Ezra’s size, Chris observed. He looked young, from what Chris could tell at this distance. He was wearing dusty worn jeans and a faded checked shirt. A Colt rode high on his left hip. That wasn't unusual though. Nothing you wouldn't see on any of the cowhands who regularly came through town.
"I ain’t never seen the old man, but the young fella’s wanted." Vin drawled knowingly. “His name’s Billy Cobb.”
Chris nodded. Vin's ability to remember faces he'd seen on wanted posters always amazed the older man. Hell, he couldn't remember the face of a one-eyed man he'd been in a brawl with. Course, twenty years had passed since Chris had seen him but the gunslinger had no doubt Vin would remember the face.
"What's he wanted for?" Chris said trying to decide if the outlaw would
be worth the trouble of rounding up some of the other men and arresting
him. It was so damn hot.
“Murder. Killed a man trying to rob a bank.” Vin’s answer settled that question.
“Hell!” Chris swore, as he pushed up out of the chair and headed for the jail.
Vin stayed where he was, keeping an eye on the two men moseying down the street. They looked to be headed for the bathhouse. Vin hoped they were. It was a hell of a lot easier to arrest a man when he was naked as a jaybird, with his guns 5 feet across the room, then to confront him in the street.
Chris could hear Buck and JD bickering, as he neared the jail. Good, the four of them should be able to arrest Billy Cobb easily.
"If you boys are done, there’s a man wanted for murder heading over to the bathhouse.” Chris’s voice cut through JD and Buck’s argument, like a knife through butter. Instantly the two were all business.
“Let’s go,” JD said impatiently, grabbing a rifle from the rack hanging on the wall furthest from the cells.
“Hold on, kid. Don’t go rushing out, you’ll get yourself killed.” Buck fussed at the young sheriff.
“Vin’s keeping an eye on them. The kid wanted for murder 's got a partner.” Chris informed his friends. “We’ll wait until we know if they’re gonna take a bath or not. It’d be hell of a lot easier to arrest them, that way.”
Buck grinned at Chris. “You know how I like easy.” JD rolled his eyes at the lady’s man and groaned.
IN THE SALOON
Ezra Standish thought he was going to die a happy man as he raked his
latest winnings across the poker table. It had been a lucrative day
indeed. He watched his latest hapless opponent push himself away
from the table and make his way rather unsteadily to the bar. The man ordered a rye whiskey using what Ezra knew to be his last nickel. Ezra grinned gleefully as he began to count his winnings. The man was lucky he'd been left with enough money to buy one last drink. Ezra allowed that as his one charitable act for the day.
The relative contentment he'd so recently achieved was shattered when a familiar voice floated from the direction of the saloon's batwing doors.
"Ezra, darlin’, come here and greet me properly. Please see that someone takes my luggage to the hotel and darlin’ be careful, you know that's genuine French leather."
Ezra slowly lifted his eyes from his winnings. It just couldn't be. Life wouldn't be so unfair to him. Ezra closed his eyes and bit back a groan. He knew he should have stayed in bed this morning. He opened his eyes and faced the inevitable.
Chris stepped out onto the porch of the jail. He squinted against the midday sun and watched as the two men disappeared into the bathhouse. The gunslinger nodded in satisfaction. At this time of day, the place was likely to be deserted. It just made this easier.
Chris’s eyes traveled down the street until he found Vin still sitting
in front of the saloon. The bounty hunter nodded to him as they exchanged
glances. Chris leaned both hands on the porch railing as JD and Buck
stepped out of the building behind him. JD carried his Winchester
and Buck had the shotgun from the jail, that they kept loaded with buckshot . Usually all it took was the thought of the hole it’d make in a man to take the fire out of any would be bad guy.
Chris spoke, never taking his eyes off the bathhouse. “Figure we’ll give ‘em a few minutes. Let ‘em get settled.”
He wiped away a trickle of sweat as the seconds moved slowly by.
Deciding enough time had passed he stepped away from the rail and made
his way down the steps, JD and Buck following in his wake. Seeing
them heading toward the bathhouse, Vin moved from the porch and began making
his way to the back of the building. He drew his Mare’s leg, checking
the number of rounds as he moved. The locals he passed sensed what
was to come and began moving hastily
Chris stepped into the door of the bathhouse and immediately moved to
the side not wanting to silhouette himself against the sunlight.
Buck and JD quickly followed. Chris paused as his eyes
adjusted to the dim lighting. Sam, the keeper, looked up startled as the three heavily armed men entered the room. Chris jerked his head toward the door. That was all the invitation Sam needed. He hadn’t made it to the ripe old age of 60 by being stupid. He dropped the towels he was folding and made a dash for the door.
Chris turned his attention back to the room. Only two tubs were
occupied. Both men were lounging in the steaming water. The
older of the two was smoking a cigar his eyes closed. Looked like
he was asleep. It was Billy Cobb who looked up and noticed the three
men arrayed across the room in front of him. His gaze came to rest
on the badge pinned to JD’s shirt. His eyes widened as it dawned
on him what these men wanted. Billy looked nervously at the gun lying
on top of his pile of clothes. His muscles tensed as he prepared
to make a lunge for it.
Chris’ hand hovered near his gun. Billy Cobb was just young enough to do something really stupid. Chris could see the decision in Cobb’s eyes. He swore to himself as the young man began to lunge out of the tub. He was stopped cold by the sound of the shotgun being hammered back. The feel of the cold steel of Vin’s mare’s leg against his neck helped to convince him further.
“Wouldn’t do that iffen you want to live to see your grandchildren,” the tracker’s soft voice warned Cobb. Vin moved around until he was at the side of the tub.
“Runnin’ from something, son?” Chris asked in an easy voice.
The sound of Chris’ voice served to wake up the man in the other tub.
“What in the hell’s going on here?” He stared at the four men facing
him guns drawn. He was a little smarter than the kid was, Chris noted.
He placed both his hands in sight on the sides of the tub. Chris
interested in the old man.
“Seems the boy here is in a whole heap of trouble,” JD spoke up seeming to forget he was younger than the man they were arresting was. “Got himself a price on his head for murder. I’m the sheriff in this town. Now, why don’t you just sit in that tub nice and quiet like and we’ll tend to our business with Mr. Cobb here.”
The old man swore to himself but made no move to defend Billy. Getting arrested, too, wouldn’t do either of them any good. He’d be better off getting word to Will Cobb as quick as he could. Seeing that the other man wasn’t going to present a problem Chris turned back to Billy.
“Now, just step out of that tub, nice and quiet like.” He motioned with the revolver for the kid to move. When the boy made an attempt to exit on the side closest to his gun, it was Buck who stopped him.
“Now, son, you must be about as sharp as a mashed potato. Away
from the gun.”
ON THE TRAIL
DAY 1, EVENING
Joe Teague hated the idea of telling Will Cobb that Billy was in jail. He hung around the saloon drinking and listening hoping to pick up some information he could take back to Will to appease the man. Will had been known to shoot the messenger on occasion.
Now, riding out to camp, he couldn't believe his good fortune.
Three of them were gonna be fishing tomorrow. He smiled humorlessly.
They weren't the only ones who were going to catch something tomorrow.
Teague wasn't a man who missed much and he hadn't missed the closeness
Chris Larabee had shown for the men he led. Chris Larabee.
heard of the man. His reputation for being hard as nails and twice as fast was widespread. He was just glad they weren't going to have to take on all seven of the lawmen at once.
"Don't nobody shoot, it's me Teague." The mountain man called as he rode into sight.
Will Cobb was waiting for him with a feral look on his face. "Where's Billy?" Cobb didn't waste time with niceties.
"He's in jail. Gotta plan to get him out." Teague was equally succinct. He didn't want Will Cobb shooting him before he got a chance to offer his solution. "There's seven of them guarding the town. Chris Larabee's in charge. Tomorrow three of them are going fishing. We take them and trade 'em for Billy."
DAY 2, MORNING
Ezra schooled his features into passive lines before he turned to face Maude. She was sitting stiffly on the edge of the bed in his rented room.
“Did I hear you correctly?” he asked disbelievingly. Hadn’t they had this exact conversation already? This was ridiculously audacious even for Maude. “You want me to help you con Mr. Grant. A man who is a close personal confidante to Judge Orrin Travis. Who I might also add is arriving in town, even as we speak.”
“Now darlin’ if we are skillful enough, Mr. Grant will not only offer to aid us in our endeavors, but he will insist over our stringent objections. Judge Travis will have nothing to object to. Ezra, darlin’ I really don’t know why you’re bein’ so stubborn. We’ve used this very same little white lie to our advantage time and again.” Maude continued oblivious to Ezra’s growing agitation.
“Little white lie? M-M-Mother…” Ezra sputtered, his jaw dropping in shock.
“Close your mouth dear, it’s not gentlemanly to stare in that manner.”
Maude continued in her most charming fashion. “Ezra, you simply must
aid me in my endeavor. If we are successful, I will be set for life.”
Maude blinked at Ezra from under her eyelids. Her eyes shimmered
with unshed tears. Maude was an expert manipulator of men and her own son was a man after all.
“No!” Ezra said with some desperation “Judge Travis will be in
town. I will not participate in this outlandish scheme. You’ll
be set for life, alright, after you’re incarcerated by the judge.” Ezra’s
exasperation was clear in his voice. “Didn’t your recent sojourn
in our lovely lockup
rehabilitate you to any extent?”
With an exaggerated expression of hurt, Maude rose to her feet, “Ezra Standish! You should be ashamed of yourself, talkin’ to your mother in that fashion.” She sighed dramatically, “I really don’t know what’s come over you these last few months.” Maude studied her son appraisingly. “Why, ever since I found you in this godforsaken burg, you’ve been thankless and ill-mannered. Questioning my every move. Now, I’m asking for your help and I expect you to cooperate.” With a flounce of skirts, Maude slammed the door behind her.
Ezra winced at the crashing noise. He sat on the bed elbows on his knees holding his head in both hands. Could this day get any worse?
DAY 2, 3:00 pm
Vin leaned back enjoying the relative coolness of the shade offered by the cottonwoods near the fishing pond. He didn't care what anybody said about it being "a dry heat", hot was hot. That damn sun was strong enough to peel the skin right off a man.
He listened to Buck and JD slinging barbs at one other. He laughed
as JD got in a particularly good rip. Those two never quit, he thought.
Vin was starting to drowse in the midday heat his head pillowed on his
buckskin jacket. He was ignoring the fishing line that he'd halfheartedly
cast into the pond a few minutes earlier. To him, fishing was just a good excuse to get away from the town and clear his head. It was a good thing nobody was relying on him to bring home supper tonight.
Nobody was relying on the three of them for anything tonight.
Chris had given them the go ahead to camp out here tonight. They
needed a break and Chris knew it. It was just too bad Chris wouldn’t
come with them. Vin’s thoughts of his best friend drifted away with
the afternoon heat. He was almost asleep when JD's excited voice
brought him back to
"Vin! Vin! You got one!" JD was almost jumping up and down in excitement his eyes fastened on Vin's jerking fishing line. Vin laughed as he grabbed the fishing pole before his catch could pull it into the pond.
"Whooee!" Buck yelped as Vin gave the line an experimental tug. The fish broke the surface of the pond as it fought to free itself flashing silver in the sun. "It's a big one!"
The men were so intent upon watching Vin try to reel the fish in that
they never noticed the men sneaking up behind them. It was the metallic
kachink of a rifle lever being cocked that stopped
the three men cold.
Vin froze as he heard the familiar sound. Damn, he thought, his hands were full of fishing line and there was no way he'd be able to draw the Mare's leg without being shot for his efforts. Buck almost made a grab for his gun when a cold voice behind him stopped him.
"You do it and you're dead, Mister."
Buck, Vin and JD slowly turned around to face the inevitable.
Five men on horseback were behind them. One of the men held double-barreled shotgun aimed in their direction. “Teague, Murray, tie ‘em up.” The man with the shotgun ordered.
Two men grabbed ropes from their saddles and dismounted. They advanced on the three lawmen cautiously.
The peacekeepers exchanged an almost imperceptible look, and held their
hands in surrender. Suddenly, Buck lunged at the man in front of
him. JD swung his hands around like a club, and knocked the man who
had been about to tie him up to the ground. JD was on him in a second,
swinging wildly at the fallen man’s face. With a whoop, Vin
charged the horses swinging his arms wildly. They shied away from
him violently. The riders cursed as they were forced
to wrestle their mounts back under control. Vin lunged forward and grabbed the reins of the man holding the gun with one hand. He used his other hand to try to wrestle the gun away from the outlaw.
For a second it appeared that Vin, Buck, and JD would be able to overcome
the odds against them when a gunshot split the air. Everyone froze
as six more outlaws rode into the midst of the group. Bringing his
mount under control, the man with the rifle used the butt to viciously
club Vin in the face. Blood spurted from his forehead as Vin fell to the ground clutching his head in both hands.
“Vin!” JD cried out in panic as he and Buck forgot about trying
to gain their freedom and dropped to their injured friend’s side.
Buck was already pulling his bandanna from around his neck to use as a
bandage. Vin was blinking the tears from eyes his eyes as he tried
to focus on
the scene around him. He wasn’t quite sure why, but his head hurt like hell and it was bleeding like a stuck pig. He could hear Buck saying something he couldn’t quite make out. It seemed to come from far away. JD’s face swam in and out of focus in front of him as he tried
desperately to figure out what the hell had just happened. Fishing, they’d been fishing -
A large man yanked JD to his feet. Roughly jerking JD’s hands
in front of him, the outlaw wrapped a thick rope tightly around his wrists.
He expertly knotted the cord. Unbuckling JD’s gunbelt he tossed it
out of reach and shoved the boy to the ground. The outlaw reached
but Buck thrust himself between the man and Vin.
“Let me finish wrapping up his head.” Buck demanded.
The outlaw was reaching for his gun when a gray haired man of about sixty covered the first outlaw’s hand with his own. Jerking his head toward the three horses the lawmen had ridden to the pond, he gave the other man an order. “Go git them horses unsaddled, Baker.”
Baker looked like he might argue but the cold hard look in the other man’s eyes made him think better of it. Nodding, he handed the rope to the older man and headed for the horses. The old man reached out and took Buck’s gun from his holster and stuck it in his belt.
Buck watched him cautiously as he squatted down next to the injured
tracker. Vin cried out when his head was jerked back by the hair
until Cobb could see his face clearly. The old man studied Vin for
a moment, and grunted as he shoved the tracker away from him. After
mare’s leg and Vin’s hunting knife, he got to his feet.
“Patch him up and we’ll talk,” the outlaw instructed Buck and turned to walk away. As an afterthought, he turned back around. “Oh, if you try anything at all, I’ll put a bullet in the kid.”
Buck nodded and turned back to his injured friend. Vin groaned and tried to grab his head, only to have Buck pull his hands away gently. “Easy pard, let ol Buck fix you up.”
“Buck?” Vin’s eyes were cloudy as he questioned his partner. “What the hell happ - ahhh” Vin’s words dissolved into a groan of pain.
Buck patted him on the shoulder as he pressed his folded bandanna against the long gash on Vin’s forehead. “You got hit in the head with a rifle.” Buck told him as he gently removed the tracker’s bandanna and used it to tie his own in place over the wound. Vin didn’t look like he understood and Buck was about to try to explain it to him when the old man called him over.
“Lawman. Your friend’s patched up so get over here.”
Buck gave the bewildered tracker a gentle pat on the shoulder and he winked reassuringly at JD. He pushed up from the ground and made his way over to a fallen log where the old man waited.
“Sit.” The old man ordered and Buck complied. “My name’s Will Cobb. You heard o’ me?”
Buck’s heart sank as he nodded. Will Cobb was a known killer and no doubt Billy Cobb’s father.
“Good. Then you know what I want. We can dispense with the
introductions and get down to business.” The old man spat, and continued.
“We’re gonna camp here. It’s getting too close to
dark now, but first thing in the morning I’m gonna let you walk outta here.”
Buck’s eyes narrowed as the outlaw continued talking. “I’m gonna let you, walk outta here, alone. In two days time, I want Larabee to bring my boy up that road. If he comes alone and I get my boy back, I’ll give those two back. I might even give ‘em back kickin’ and breathin’ if nobody tries anything funny. Noon, day after tomorrow, Larabee and my boy ride up that road. Baker over there,” Cobb jerked his head towards the man who had tied JD up, “is gonna meet him. If Baker gives the all clear, Baker and Billy ride towards me and them two ride towards Larabee. You get your boys back, I get mine back and we all go our separate ways. Larabee don’t bring my boy, or anybody tries anything, I’m gonna take these two fellas with me when I go. And I’m gonna send ‘em back to you one piece at a time. You got that?”
Buck’s eyes were cold and flat as he acknowledged the older man’s words. “Yeah, I got it. Now, I’m gonna tell you somethin’” Buck leaned in close to the old man his voice low and soft, his tone menacing. “Either one of them gets so much as another scratch, and not only is your boy gonna swing, but I’m personally gonna carve your heart outta your chest.”
Cobb smiled grimly in acknowledgment of Buck’s promise. The old
man had no doubt that Buck would follow him to the ends of the earth to
keep that promise if something happened to one of his hostages. He’d
lived a long time by knowing when a man’s word was worth
paying attention to.
“Get over there and take care o’ your hurt friend. Wouldn’t want him dying on me. Leastways, not till Larabee gives me back my boy.
Against his better judgment, Ezra had agreed to escort Maude to an early dinner. Now, as he sat across the small table listening to her fuss to the waitress about the limited menu choices he was regretting his decision. Ezra fiddled with the fork on the table until Maude’s hand covered his.
“Please, dear, such poor table manners are not becomin’.” With a long-suffering sigh, Ezra carefully replaced the fork in its proper position. His hand dropped into his lap where he immediately began wrinkling the cloth napkin in his lap.
“Now, Ezra darlin’, about my plan. You have had plenty of time to study on it and surely you must see the brilliance of my little endeavor. Why Mr. Grant will be thanking me before it is all over.”
Ezra turned unbelieving yes to Maude. “Please, Mother, you cannot possibly expect me to aid you. I’ve told you once before, Mr. Grant is a close personal friend of Judge Travis. Who is my employer, I might add.”
Maude smiled sweetly at Ezra, “Exactly, my dear, which is why you’re perfect for this. Mr. Grant would never expect someone workin’ for his old friend, the Judge, to have anythin’ other than exemplary motives. Ezra darlin’, you’ve really got to try to visit one of the more cultured cities soon. You’re becomin’ positively mundane and boring. I simply asked you to tell one little white lie.”
Ezra stared at Maude in disbelief. Did the woman ever listen to
a thing he said? Ezra opened his mouth and then shut it again as
words eluded him.
Maude continued on in her sweetest tone. The one Ezra knew meant she was lying through her teeth. “Darlin’ of course, I’ll see to it that you’re taken care of.”
“And how do you plan on doing that, Mother dear? Shoot Chris Larabee when he locks me in jail and throws away the key? Bribe Judge Travis into releasing me? Or better yet, are you going to visit me in Yuma prison?”
Ezra’s growing tirade was cut short when the waitress brought their meals to the table. Maude’s posture had grown stiff and she virtually ignored throughout the meal. Ezra finally pushed the plate away from him. Somehow, he’d lost his appetite. He signaled to the waitress and ordered a whiskey. The girl quickly complied. Ezra spent the rest of the meal drinking his dinner. Maude didn’t notice or pretended not to.
Finally, Maude stood up, “Thank you for the lovely dinner, my darlin’. We will discuss the matter further later. When you are in a more receptive mood.”
Ezra was left sitting at the table alone, holding the bill. Well, some things never changed, he thought to himself.
Chris had once more settled himself on the boardwalk in front of the
saloon. He’d cadged a free beer from Inez and was nursing it slowly.
There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. What they needed he decided was good rainstorm.
It’d help settle some of the dust that was choking the town. Maybe
it’d help cool some tempers, too. Earlier, he’d helped Nathan and
Josiah end a brawl in the saloon before it ever got started. A dump
in the public watering trough had been followed by a trip to the town jail
where the duo was now cooling their heels. Once it cooled off some
Chris figured he’d head on over and let the two men out. By then,
they’d probably be sober and have
forgotten whatever it was they were fighting about in the first place.
Chris tipped the chair back and leaned against the walls of the saloon. Just then, Ezra Standish pushed through the doors leading from the hotel dining room. Chris watched him walk towards him, cocking an eyebrow when Ezra didn’t see him.
“Little white lie?” the gambler was talking to himself. Chris could just make out the words “That woman is the most annoying manipulative deceitful creature God ever put on this Earth.” Ezra descended the porch steps two at a time never once acknowledging Chris. As Ezra made his way across the street from the Ritz hotel, Chris heard the tirade continue.
“Of all the duplicitous swindling schemes and she calls it a little white lie . . .” Ezra’s tirade faded as he moved away from Chris towards the batwing doors of the saloon.
Good Lord, Chris thought, he even thinks to himself using those fancy words. Chris just shook his head. He didn’t think he’d ever understand Ezra. Chris settled himself more comfortably into the chair and lazily watched the townsfolk drift by.
DAY 2, DUSK
Buck pushed his hat back on his forehead and wiped the sweat from his brow with his hand. JD was watching him and he gave the kid a small smile as he crouched beside his two friends. Vin’s eyes were closed and Buck put a worried hand on his shoulder. His eyes opened slowly, staring dully at Buck.
“Damn, my head hurts.” Vin’s raspy voice was laced with pain. He tried to touch the wound and Buck caught his hand.
“Just leave it alone, pard.” Buck told him gently as he laid the tracker’s hand on the ground. Damn. Vin being hurt made trying to escape much harder. Buck and JD could probably get away during the night, but they’d definitely need horses to get out of here with Vin in the shape he was in.
Buck watched the outlaws out of the corner of his eye, trying to come up with a plan. At the same time, he gave JD a wink. He knew the kid was scared and Buck didn’t blame him. Buck was scared too. Not for himself, he was sure Cobb meant what he said about letting him go. No, he was scared for Vin and JD. No matter what Cobb said about letting them go, Buck knew that every minute they spent here after he left, they were in danger. Buck sighed and thought wearily, Damn, if only Vin wasn’t hurt.
“Buck?” JD’s urgent whisper cut into Buck’s thoughts.
Buck lifted his eyes and met the kid’s scared ones. “What is it kid?” He asked kindly.
“What are we gonna do Buck?” JD was asking Buck exactly what he was asking himself.
“I don’t know yet kid, but I’ll think of something.” A groan from Vin ended the conversation as both of the men turned their attention to the injured man.
It was nearly dark when Will Cobb called to two of his men. “Jenner, Miller, feed ‘em and tie up them other two.
JD reluctantly allowed Buck to feed him a plate of beans only after the older man’s harsh whisper. “JD, now ain’t the time to be to proud to take some help.”
Buck managed to get a few bites into Vin also. The tracker’s eyes
were more focused and it seemed to Buck like he was getting his bearings.
Buck hastily ate his own food, before having his hands pulled behind his back and tied by a pockmarked man with a ruddy complexion, of about twenty-five years old. The man was in a hurry and Buck felt hope flare in his heart. Hurried men made mistakes. Vin groaned as his hands were pulled together in front of him and also tied together. It was JD who put his bound hands on the tracker’s shoulder and spoke softly to him. Buck tested the ropes and to his surprise found them to be loose. He watched the pockmarked man make his way to his bedroll
and pull out a bottle. Buck smiled knowingly. That explained the ruddy complexion and the lousy job the outlaw had done tying him up.
Leaning over to JD, Buck whispered into his ear. “My ropes are loose. Be ready.”
JD looked at him quizzically for a few seconds, before his face changed and he nodded slightly at the ladies man.
The camp settled down for the night, with one man on guard duty. Buck didn’t hold out much hope for an escape as long as Teague was watching them, but he kept working at his ropes, hoping for a chance. Buck felt rather than saw the tracker’s eyes on him.
“How you feeling pard?” Buck asked in a low voice as he made eye contact with Vin.
“Like a herd o’ buffalo ran overtop my head.” Vin’s raspy drawl was slow, but Buck was relieved to see his eyes were clear.
“You up to tryin’ to get the hell outta here in a couple of hours?” Buck whispered.
Vin closed his eyes and nodded his head. “I’ll be ready when you are.”
“Get some sleep.” Buck whispered. “I’ll wake you when it’s time.”
Buck could feel the skin on his wrists tearing as he twisted and pulled his hands. Ever so slowly, he could also feel the ropes loosening. Several hours had passed. Everyone in camp was asleep. Everyone but Buck and the pockmarked man Jenner, who had replaced Teague. Buck felt hope rising when Teague settled down on his bedroll. Teague had watched them carefully, but unless Buck had totally misread him, Jenner would be after his bottle soon enough. An hour later, Jenner took the first sip from the pint bottle he’d stashed in his bedroll. Fifteen minutes after that Buck was nudging JD and Vin awake with his foot. JD came awake immediately. Buck had to nudge Vin a few times before he woke and the tracker was a little foggy, but there.
Keeping a careful eye on Jenner who after four or five good drinks from his bottle was now dozing, Buck untied his partners as quickly as he could.
“Let’s get the hell outta here,” Buck whispered urgently. JD and
Vin nodded and slowly, cautiously the three began making their way towards
their horses. Vin was a little unsteady, and Buck stayed close to
make sure he stayed on his feet. JD moved carefully among the horses
whispering softly and untied their horses. The peacekeepers started
to mount, when Vin was overcome with dizziness and fell against his
horse. JD and Buck were already in the saddle and could only watch
helplessly, as the horse panicked and whinnied loudly, setting off the
“Damn!” Buck cursed as the camp came to life. Outlaws swarmed over the peacekeepers pulling JD and Buck out of the saddle. Buck caught a glimpse of Vin on the ground being kicked in the belly. JD was being pummeled by two men and someone held Buck’s arms, while another man punched him in the face.
“That’s enough!” Will Cobb’s roar cut through the melee. “How the hell did they get loose?”
“Jenner was on watch.” Teague spat and let go of Buck’s arms.
Cobb spied the half empty bottle and turned his attention on the unfortunate Jenner. Without a word, he drew his gun and shot Jenner. “Get rid o’ that trash.” He motioned towards Jenner’s body. Instantly two of his men moved to haul the body out of camp.
Cobb turned to face his three captives. JD was breathing hard and holding his middle. Buck was using the back of his hand to wipe blood from his mouth and nose. Vin was curled into a ball on the ground moaning softly.
“Lawman,” Cobb’s voice was clipped and tight. “I’m tellin’ you this just once. I don’t need both o’ them alive to get my boy back. You so much as twitch wrong again and I’m gonna put a bullet in one of ‘em. Now, get the hell over there.” Cobb motioned away from the horses.
Buck reached down and as gently as possible pulled Vin to his feet. The tracker was dazed and leaned heavily on the older man as they moved to the area Cobb had indicated. JD followed still holding his ribs. Teague tied their hands tightly and Cobb personally checked their bindings before stalking off to his bedroll.
Buck took stock of their injuries, as the camp settled down. He wasn’t hurt, just bruised up some but the other two - . “JD?” Buck whispered. “You hurt?”
“I - don’t - think so.” The kid’s gasping words belied his denial. Still Buck was relieved to hear his next words. “I’m gonna have a terrific shiner and my ribs hurt like the dickens, but they don’t feel like they’re broke. How’s Vin?”
“Feelin’ like shit, kid.” The tracker’s words were weak, but to Buck and JD they sounded sweeter than honey.
Buck maneuvered to Vin’s side and took stock of the younger man’s injuries. Looked like Buck and JD weren’t the only one who were gonna have shiners tomorrow.
“How’s your ribs? Feel like anything’s broke?” Buck asked, concern in his voice.
“Feels like I mighta cracked a couple o’ them, but they ain’t broke.” Vin’s weak voice was certain.
“We better get some sleep. It’s gonna be a long day tomorrow.” Buck didn’t know what else to say to them. The morning would be soon enough for them to find out Cobb was sending him back to Four Corners without them.
DAY 3, 8:00 AM
Buck finished the biscuit and washed it down with water from the canteen one of Cobb’s men had dropped at their feet. JD had wolfed down his breakfast and Vin had nibbled at a biscuit before closing his eyes and leaning back against a rock. Buck didn’t like the listlessness the bounty hunter was showing, but there wasn’t much he could do until Nathan could take a look at Vin.
Buck was about to explain to his friends what Cobb had told him the day before, when Cobb’s voice interrupted.
“You got 10 minutes to say goodbye to your friends and then you start walking.”
Vin’s eyes open and he stared painfully at Buck. JD turned shocked eyes on Buck and demanded. “What’s he talkin’ about Buck?”
Buck didn’t know how else to tell them, so he took a deep breath and laid it out flatly. “Cobb wants to trade you two for Billy. He’s gonna let me walk back to Four Corners and tell Chris.”
“Walk? It’s one hundred degrees out there. You can’t walk all the way to Four Corners in this heat.” JD’s voice had a fearful edge to it.
Buck met each one of his friend’s eyes and held them surely for a few seconds. “I’ll make it.” Buck’s voice was certain. If he had to, Buck would crawl on his knees over broken glass to get back to Four Corners. And if he had to carry Chris himself Buck would make sure that Chris got back here on time.
Cobb figured it would take Buck about 10 hours to walk to Four Corners.
Allowing for trouble along the way, maybe 12. That only left about
16 hours for the lawmen in Four Corners to figure out a way to get the
hostages back alive without giving up Billy. Not a lot of time, and
hoped like hell that it wouldn’t be enough.
“Time’s up.” Cobb hollered from across the camp. “Get over here.”
Buck took one last look at the youngest two of the seven. Vin’s eyes had closed again and JD was staring back at him with panicked eyes. Buck reached out and touched the kid on the shoulder. “Keep an eye on him kid.” Buck let his eyes rest on Vin for a second before meeting JD’s again.
The young sheriff smiled and answered bravely, “Don’t worry about me and Vin, Buck. We’ll be fine. I’ll take care o’ him.”
“I know ya will kid.” Buck’s emotion-filled voice threatened to break, as he gave JD’s shoulder a squeeze.
“Lawman, let’s go.” Cobb interrupted.
With a last pat on the shoulder for both of his friends, Buck got to his feet. He felt like he was leaving Vin and JD in the midst of a den of rattlesnakes.
“Get goin’ cause in just about - 28 hours, I’m gonna take your friends on a nice long trip. One they’re gonna come back from a piece at a time. How long you figure I can keep ‘em alive that way?” Cobb’s eyes were cruel, as he demanded one more thing. “Take yer boots off. I don’t want you gettin’ home too quick.”
Buck sighed. He knew better than to try to argue with the man.
Buck had a feeling Cobb would grieve for about a minute if they didn’t
give Billy back. Then, be glad for the opportunity to torture Vin
and JD. Well, it didn’t matter if he had to walk in his bare feet
over broken glass
in 100 degree weather. Buck aimed to make sure he got back to Four Corners in record time.
Tossing his boots at Cobb’s feet Buck gave JD and Vin his brightest smile. “You boys enjoy this little vacation and I’ll see ya in a couple days.”
JD’s eyes welled up but he managed to give Buck a false smile of his own. Vin moaned softly and JD looked down and spoke softly to the injured tracker his bound hands patting Vin’s shoulder gently. Vin’s eyes didn’t open and JD hoped he’d fallen asleep. He turned back to where Buck had been. Buck was just rounding a curve that took him out of JD’s sight.
IN THE DESERT
DAY 3, NOON
Buck swore to himself when he was once again forced to stop and pull
grass burrs from his feet. 'Damn the desert,' he thought, 'ain’t
there a damn thing growing around here that doesn't feel the need to chew
the hell out of innocent passerby?" He pushed his hat back on his
forehead and studied the position of the sun. It was nearing the
highest point in its travel. Hell Buck could tell that without even
looking. The desert stretched on endlessly before him. It's
marked by the wavy heat lines that marked its farthest horizons. Always tantalizingly out of reach was that ever moving mirage of water Buck thought longingly of the canteen that he'd been forced to leave tied to his saddle. What he wouldn't give for a cool drink of water.
Well, there was nothing to be done for it, he decided. He eased himself back to his sore feet and started once more towards town. He needed to get there fast as possible or JD and Vin were going to pay a hefty price.
Buck made his way down into a dry arroyo bed figuring that would be
easier traveling than the rockier desert flat with its spiny plants.
However, even the arroyo was littered with small sharp pebbles. It
wasn't long before small stains of blood began to show through his grey
socks. As he limped along Buck thought of the vengeance he'd wreak
on William Cobb. Every mean and nasty thing one human being could
do to another picked up through years of warfare and just
plain living coming to mind. Oh yeah, Will Cobb would rue the day he treated Buck and his friends like just so much spare baggage.
Buck couldn't be sure but judging by the position of the sun several hours had passed. He was forced to leave the wash when its path began to take away from the direction of Four Corners. Buck eased himself to the ground as he studied his surroundings. He tried to think through the exhausted haze in his mind. There really wasn't much of a trail leading to the private fishing hole that he, JD, and Vin had used. However, he didn't recall it being so hard to find yesterday morning. Buck knew it was the heat and lack of water that was skewing his thinking but knowing didn't help him out none. Hoof prints left behind by their horses the previous morning had long since been wiped out by the wind and the ever shifting desert sands. Buck finally managed to get his bearings. He pushed himself up with a sigh and started moving again. Gawd, a nice tall glass of lemonade. Yeah, that'd sure taste good right now. He winced as his increasingly tender feet protested the brutal walk. He was going to kill William Cobb.
DAY 3, 10 PM
With an exasperated sigh, Ezra threw down his third losing hand in a row. He tried not to wince when he heard the gales of laughter that drifted down from the raised platform to his right. Maude had entered the saloon only an hour ago and already had charmed herself into a game with a table full of men. No doubt, regaling them with tales of my childhood exploits. Too bad she wasn’t there to see the real ones, he thought to himself. Ezra quickly cut off that line of thinking. Wallowing in self pity wasn’t helping his poker playing.
When another round of raucous laughter drifted from Maude’s table, Ezra decided he needed to get some air. Ezra pushed his chair back from the table, “Gentleman, if you’ll excuse me. I am going to call it a night.”
His departure was met with protests from the other three men at the table. Undoubtedly, they’d hoped to win more money from him. It had not been a good night.
Ezra drifted outside to the quiet porch of the saloon. He wasn’t surprised to find Chris Larabee keeping watch over the town. Ezra leaned against the railing and watched the fires scattered along main street. The cool night air was a welcome relief from the heat of the day.
“Mr. Larabee,” Ezra cocked his head in greeting. Chris just nodded
to the gambler. He was a little surprised to find Ezra had cut short
his poker playing. Usually, the gambler didn’t leave the tables until
Inez forced him out. Chris had heard Maude’s voice several times
during the evening. He wondered just how much Maude’s presence inside
had to do with Ezra’s
presence outside. He didn’t ask though. It was Ezra’s business. Or problem, he thought wryly.
BEHIND THE LIVERY
Buck hit the ground on his knees falling forward until he was forced to use his hands to catch himself. It was just too damned hot. He had long since quit wishing for a glass of water. Now, he wanted a mountain lake to swim in. Why was he out here? Oh yeah, Vin and the kid. They were going to die if Buck didn’t get back to town and tell Chris.
Just a little farther, he told himself. Town had to be just over the next rise. Buck opened his eyes and focused on the ground before him. Even the damn dirt was hot underneath his hands. Well, he wasn’t getting any closer just sitting here. It was time to get a move on. Buck tried to lever himself back to his feet. He never made it off his knees before the world tilted around him and he pitched forward to lie in the desert sands.
Buck never heard the sounds of the rear door of the livery sliding open. He never felt the hands on him or heard the shouts of Joe Tyler, the man who ran the livery stable calling for Chris.
Suddenly, Chris heard a commotion. He looked up to see Joe Tyler running from the alley between the livery and it’s neighboring building. “Chris! Chris Larabee!” Spotting the man in black on the saloon porch he waved wildly. “Chris! You gotta come.” Chris was immediately moving down the porch. Tyler, seeing the gunslinger making his way toward the stable moved once more to the back alleyway. Ezra hurried across the street following Chris behind the livery.
Chris followed Tyler to the rear of the livery with Ezra close behind. All the old man had to do was point to the figure sprawled in the dirt about ten yards behind the building. Chris’ stomach clenched as he recognized the unconscious man. It was Buck.
“Dear Lord,” Ezra breathed as he knelt in the dirt next to Larabee.
Ezra winced as he helped Chris roll the man onto his back. Ezra had
seen filet mignons that wasn’t cooked as much as Buck. The hat he’d
been wearing had not completely protected his skin from the sun.
One eye was nearly swollen shut. Looked like had quite a shiner though
it was hard to tell from the
dust and dirt obscuring Buck’s face. Where the hell were his boots? Chris didn’t waste any time trying to answer these questions. Grabbing Buck by one arm he motioned Ezra to take the other. "Help me get him to Nathan’s."
Between them, Chris and Ezra managed to get Buck up the stairs leading to Nathan’s clinic. With a grunt, Chris kicked at the door to the clinic. Almost immediately, Nathan swung the door open. The question died on his lips when he spotted Buck between the two men. The gunslinger was hanging between the two, his arms draped over their shoulders. Nathan couldn’t tell if he was conscious. His head hung forward. His chin was almost touching his chest.
“Get him in here quick,” Nathan stepped out of the doorway and allowed the men past him.
Chris and Ezra eased Buck into a sitting position. Ezra stepped away from him allowing Nathan access. Chris helped Buck lie back onto the bed.
“What happened?” Nathan’s tone was hard.
“I don’t know.” Chris never took his eyes off his oldest friend. “Old Man Tyler found him behind the livery.”
Nathan immediately spotted the blood stained torn socks. However,
he began his examination by searching for any bullet wounds and head injuries.
Chris helped him strip Buck of most of his clothes. Nathan sighed
in relief when he didn’t find any evidence of injury. However, Buck
was hot to the touch. Too hot. Also, the ladies man wasn’t
very responsive when they called his
name. His skin was flushed and remained tented when pinched.
“Chris, get me a basin of water. I need ya to start spongin’ him
down. We need to cool him off. Also, see if you can get any
water into him. I’m gonna take care of those feet. We don’t
want gangrene settin’ in.” Nathan had been forced to cut the blood soaked
socks off of Buck’s feet. He winced when he saw the damage there.
He turned to the gambler who had remained in
the room hovering in the background. “Ezra, go to the saloon. Get me a bottle of whiskey.”
Immediately Ezra fished the flask from his belt. “Here, Nathan, start with this. I’ll procure the whiskey.” Ezra backed out the door. Nathan could hear him clattering down the stairs. Nathan turned back to Buck and began the task of cleaning Buck’s raw feet.
IN THE SALOON
Ezra almost ran full tilt into the saloon. The room was full of
men lounging in front of the bar and at a few of the poker tables.
Ezra was forced to thread his way to the front of the room. He leaned
over the bar and fished a bottle of Inez’ good scotch from the secret stash
he knew Inez
kept. Inez saw him and moved closer to him.
“Something I can help you with, Senor Standish.” She was unaware of Buck’s current predicament.
Tipping his hat to her Ezra through a silver dollar on the bar. “I’ll explain later.”
Ezra had just turned around when Maude left the table she’d been sitting at and moved to intercept Ezra. A whistle or two issued from the back of the room. Maude preened slightly enjoying the attention as she moved through the tables. Seeing her, Ezra sighed. Lord, the woman had the worst timing.
Ezra began quickly moving toward the batwing doors hoping to make his escape before Maude saw him. Lady Luck wasn’t with him though.
“Why, Ezra, I have been searchin’ for you darlin’.” Maude’s sugar sweet voice cut through the crowd. She quickly moved to intercept his headlong flight from the bar. Ezra was forced to either run over top of her or stop. He stopped.
“Now, Ezra darlin’, you’ve had time to think over my proposal. I’m sure you’ve seen the brilliance of my plan . . .” Maude never finished when Ezra cut her off.
“Mother, a rather urgent matter requires my attention.”
“Ezra, I’m your Mother. Now, be a dear, and sit here and talk to me.” Maude had begun to make her way to a nearby table. As usual, she didn’t sense the urgency in her son’s voice.
“Excuse me, Mother, I really don’t have time for this right now.” With another tip of his hat and a dimpled grin, Ezra ducked around her and out the door.
Maude stared at the swinging doors and the vanishing back of her son.
“Well, I never . . .”
DAY THREE, 11:30 PM
The first thing Buck heard was low voices. Then, the sounds of water splashing in a basin. He struggled to open his eyes straining to hear the voices. He felt something wonderful and cool being rubbed over his shoulder and then chest.
“What the hell happened to him?” Nathan’s question went unanswered.
Buck heard Ezra’s voice next. “And where are his traveling companions?” Worry was evident in the Southerner’s voice.
When did Ezra worry about anything, Buck thought to himself. He couldn’t figure out why he was having trouble waking up. His memories seemed to return at once. The fishing hole and Vin and JD. Then, the arrival of Cobb and their capture. That hellish walk through the desert. Oh Lord, Buck thought, I’ve gotta tell them. With a gasp, Buck forced his eyes open.
“Easy there, Buck,” Nathan was taken by surprise when Buck’s eyes flew open and the man tried to sit up. Nathan tossed the rag he’d been using to bathe Buck in an attempt to cool him down back into the basin. He was forced to restrain Buck to keep him lying still in the bed. The gunslinger attempted to push his way past Nathan but was unsuccessful.
“Chris, where’s Chris? I’ve gotta tell him,” Buck’s voice was raw and scratchy. He looked frantically past Nathan who was trying in vain to calm him down.
“What’s wrong, Buck? What happened out there? Where are JD and Vin?” Chris moved into Buck’s view standing behind Nathan.
Buck reached grabbing Chris by the wrist pulling him closer. His
blue eyes were intense. “It was Will Cobb. He jumped us at
the fishin’ hole. There were a dozen of them. We didn’t stand
a chance.” Buck coughed and tried to work some spit into his dry
throat. Almost immediately, Nathan produced a tin cup of water from
the bedside table. Buck took a few swallows and
continued. “He’s got JD and Vin. He wants to trade them for his boy tomorrow. Says he’ll send them back to us in pieces if we don’t work the trade. Chris, I believe him. He’ll do it.”
Nathan exchanged concerned glances with Chris. “How are JD and Vin, Buck?”
Some of the urgency had drained from Buck’s frame once he’d warned Chris
and the others. He sagged back against the pillows behind him.
“They got beat up some. JD’s doin’ ok. Vin got hit in the head
with a rifle butt. He wasn’t altogether with us when I left.”
Chris turned to see Ezra standing behind him. "Find Josiah. Looks like we've got some planning to do." Ezra nodded to Chris and slipped through the door into the gathering twilight. Just before the door closed behind him the gambler overheard Buck.
"The bastard also stole my boots."
IN THE JAIL
Billy Cobb started yammering the minute the black-clad gunslinger named Chris Larabee angrily entered the jail. "When the hell do I get fed? It's gettin' on toward midnight."
Larabee didn't speak to him. Ignored him, in fact, but Billy had himself an idea that something was bothering the man. Cobb raised himself to a sitting position on the narrow bunk and watched as Larabee nearly threw himself into the wood chair behind the desk.
Chris slammed the drawer back into the desk after he pulled the stack of Wanted Posters JD kept in the top drawer. He began impatiently leafing through the posters discarding each paper onto the top of the desk. Chris was seething. There was no way in hell they could trade Billy Cobb for Vin and JD. The judge would never agree and, when push came to shove, neither would Chris. But dammit, there had to be a way to get JD and Vin back before Will Cobb killed both of them. For the life of him, he couldn't think of a way that wouldn't get those two men killed and probably a few more with them.
Behind his back, Chris heard a snicker from Billy Cobb. "Looking for someone special, Law dog?"
Chris closed his eyes briefly and tried to rein in his temper. Wouldn't do anyone any good to kill the little bastard now. Although, sending Billy Cobb's body back to his old man was a rather pleasing option.
Cobb watched as Larabee's shoulder tensed briefly. "So, Law dog, So where's that long haired fella and that kid sheriff? I sure could use one of them pretty fellas for company.
Cobb didn't think he'd ever seen a man move so fast as Chris Larabee did. The desk chair slammed back into the wall behind it as Chris lunged for the man standing at the bars. Before he could pull away, Larabee's hands grasped the front of Cobb's shirt. Chris jerked him forward slamming the man's face into the bars.
"You say another word, boy, and I'm gonna cut out your tongue and feed it to you."
The glare Chris leveled at the young man left no doubt in Billy's mind the man would do it. With another rough shake, Larabee slammed him into the bars a second time. Then, he shoved the younger Cobb away from him. Unprepared for the move Cobb stumbled back deeper into the cell sprawling onto his backside. He swore viciously at Larabee. Almost without thinking, Chris was reaching for the keys to the small cell.
Ezra's voice brought him up short. "Now, Mr. Larabee, much as I would enjoy watching this rather barbaric spectacle, we have other more pressing matters to attend to."
Chris turned to see the conman standing in the doorway of the jail. He forced down his anger and frustration and took a deep breath. He knew Ezra was right. Beating up young Cobb wouldn't help Vin and JD.
Seeing that Chris was once more in control, Ezra stepped farther into the room. In one hand he carried a tin plate full of food meant for the prisoner. Even through his anger Chris had to grin. He knew how much Ezra hated what he considered menial labor.
"You draw kitchen duty tonight, Ezra?" Chris teased the conman.
A look of disgust crossed Ezra's face. "No, I did not. JD should be performing my duties for the next month."
At Chris raised eyebrow, Ezra added, "I bested, Mr. Dunne, in a poker game. Since he had no money to wager at the time, I agreed he could work off the loss."
Chris chuckled softly, shaking his head. Someday, JD was going to learn
not to play Ezra unless he could afford to lose. Chris settled back into
the desk chair and watched Ezra passing food to Cobb through the cell doors.
Idly he noted just how similar the two men were in appearance. Both had
the same height and build. They also, Chris noted had the same hair color
complexion. The only thing really separating the two men was the difference in dress. A thought, more a memory, crossed Chris's mind.
When Ezra turned away from the jail cell and the prisoner, his heart immediately sank as he recognized the speculative look on Chris's face. Something told him, not to ask Chris what was on his mind.
DAY FOUR, 7:00 AM
"I absolutely will not." Ezra stared at the worn jeans and checked shirt that Chris had thrown on the cot in Nathan's room. He hesitated to think what Billy Cobb was wearing at the moment. Given Chris's anger in the jail earlier, he was probably dressed in his birthday suit. Ezra looked up to meet Chris's unwavering stare. He desperately looked around the room searching for some route of escape. Nathan, Josiah, and even Buck from his position on the bed returned his stare with equal determination of their own.
"Look, Ezra," Josiah began softly. He was talking to the gambler as if he was a wild animal, who with one wrong move or word on their part would bolt from the room. "Chris is right. You could pass for Billy Cobb from a distance. We can't give them the real thing. It's out of the question. If we don't do something, Vin and JD will pay the price."
Ezra stared mutely at the Preacher.
Buck spoke up from the bed, "Ezra, we need you," he said simply.
"You cannot possibly expect me to wear that that lice-infested clothing? It is probably in need of fumigation. Better yet, it should be incinerated." Ezra's words began to come faster as he tried to talk his way clear.
"Ezra, the greatest love a person can have for his friends is to give his life for them." Josiah's voice was still soft and coaxing. "Surely, this is much easier." Ezra was beginning to look quite panicked.
"Yes, well that would be far preferable to this," Ezra shot back as his hand indicated Billy Cobb's clothing.
Ezra began to back away from the others. He didn't get far before he bumped into an unmoving presence behind him. Two hands reached up and grabbed him by the arms. Ezra twisted around until he was staring into Nathan's determined face.
Nathan's expression never changed as he spoke, "Put 'em on."
Nathan's strident voice carried down the stairs where Josiah, Chris, and Ezra waited for the healer to join them. "Buck, you are not getting' outta that bed. Buck, did you hear me? Buck!?"
Chris sighed inwardly as he caught Josiah's eyes. The preacher smirked slightly. "Knew we weren't going to be able to leave him behind. Not with the boy missing. Come on, brother, we might as well give Nathan a hand before he takes a header down those stairs."
Ezra did not comment. He appeared not to have heard the entire exchange. Periodically, though, he would start fidgeting his hand straying to the color of the dusty faded shirt. He would give it a good tug and rub his neck as though it itched before a slight shudder would run through his frame. Ezra would then résumé his position leaning back against the newel post of the stairwell ignoring the other two men. Chris and Josiah had no doubt the man was plotting the retribution he would exact from the group for forcing him into the clothing.
Actually, Ezra was thinking no such thing although it would come to mind later. Maude was first and foremost in his mind. He had been completely unable to dissuade the woman from trying one of her famous cons on an upstanding member of the community. The matter was really rather worrisome to Ezra. Lord knows what antics Maude would get up to while he was gone. He was liable to make his way back to Four Corners only to find a jail cell courtesy of Judge Travis waiting for him. He had no doubt Maude would incriminate him in order to procure her freedom. He licked his lips nervously, the woman had no shame. It would be just his luck to go to prison for a crime he didn't commit.
Ezra was jerked from his reverie by the sound of booted feet on the steps. Looking up, he noticed Chris and Josiah already halfway to Nathan's room. Now what, he thought as he hastened after the two men.
Nathan watched Buck turn an interesting shade of gray as he settled
into the saddle. Getting him onto the horse had proven a challenge as the
sorrel gelding had not been particularly cooperative. To keep from putting
too much weight on his sore feet, now encased in a pair of Josiah's moccasins,
Buck had been forced to mount the horse from an elevated perch. The horse,
borrowed since Buck's grey was still held by Cobb, had not taken kindly to the operation.
"You fall off that horse and I ain't gonna pick ya up!" Nathan warned the lady's man. Buck was forced to clutch at the saddlehorn as the world suddenly tilted.
"I'll be fine, Nate," Buck lied from between clenched teeth.
"Yeah, sure ya will," Nathan said sarcastically, however, he turned his attention to his own horse and swung into the saddle without another word.
Chris watched the healer. He caught Nathan's eye as he too settled into the saddle. Chris raised one eyebrow at Buck who had nudged his horse past Chris's.
"I'll take care of him," Nathan said softly.
Chris gave the healer a tight smile. He reined his horse around and indicated they should all move out. However, he hung in the back of the group. He didn't want Ezra slitherin' off to change clothes when he wasn't looking.
Chris moved his horse to the side of the group to try to escape the dust the horses were kicking up. He kept running the plan over in his mind. It was simple. They'd leave Nathan, Buck, and Josiah a few miles from the meeting place. Those three would swing around until they had flanked the outlaws, but stay hidden until their guns were needed. He and Ezra would continue on to where the exchange took place. Hopefully, Cobb wouldn't wise up to Ezra's identity until they could get close to Vin and JD.
Chris tried not to think about what could go wrong with the plan. However, his mind insisted on dwelling on every perceived weakness. He winced inwardly as he considered every morbid possibility. They would be damn lucky to get out of this without one of them dying.
JD bit his lip as he watched Vin struggle to mount his horse. Vin groaned as he pulled himself up into the saddle, his knuckles were white as they gripped the saddle horn. The tracker hadn't been right since that rifle butt had slammed into his forehead. JD reached over and let his bound hands rest on his friend's arm.
"You OK, Vin?" The boy asked with concern.
"I'm ok kid, just a little dizzy." Vin tried to grin at JD, but it broke off into a grimace as a wave of pain swept over him.
Anything JD wanted to say to him was forgotten as Will Cobb rode up. JD stared stubbornly at the man, refusing to be cowed.
"You boys ready to take a ride? Just remember, Teague is gonna have a shotgun aimed at your backs the whole time. You try anything and Teague is gonna blow a hole in you." With that Cobb spat and wheeled his horse around.
JD and Vin's horses were led out of the camp. Vin was reeling a little and JD stayed as close as possible, ready to grab him if it looked like the bounty hunter was going to fall off the horse.
ON THE TRAIL
"This is where we split up." Chris pulled his horse up and waited. The other four men rode even with him and paused. Chris's words were clipped. "Nathan, Josiah flank 'em. We'll try and catch 'em in a crossover." Chris's eyes strayed to his oldest friend. "Buck, try not to fall off that horse and give them away." A small smile took the sting out of his words.
Buck looked up from under the brim of his hat. "We'll be ready for ya, Chris." The three men turned their horses and left at a lope. Larabee and Standish watched them until they were out of sight.
Chris sat his horse quietly until even their dust trails had disappeared. Chris reached down and eased the thong from the hammer of his six-shooter before reining his horse around until he was face to face with Ezra. The southerner was sitting on his horse resting his right forearm across the saddlehorn. He flashed a dimpled grin at the black clad man.
"Well, Mr. Larabee, looks like it's just you and me," Ezra lightly told Chris.
"All right, Ezra, they've had enough time to get into position. We better head out ," Chris studied the conman remembering his distracted manner back in town. "Try not to get us shot."
"I assure you, Mr. Larabee, I’m aware of the high stakes. I will use every ounce of tact and diplomacy." His oratory was cut off by Larabee.
"Ezra never mind." With a laugh, Ezra kicked his horse up to ride even with Chris.
THE MEETING PLACE
Ezra pulled his hat down over his face. No use in openly advertising
he wasn't Cobb. They'd need all the help they could get to pull this
off. Chris twisted in the saddle and gave Ezra a small nod.
Ezra flexed his hands and fidgeted softly. He wasn't openly wearing
a gun. After all, Chris Larabee wouldn't let an armed prisoner in
his presence. The Richard's Conversion was secreted
behind the pommel of his saddle within easy reach. His sleeve gun, normally carried in the arm rig was nestled in his boot. Ezra hoped like hell he wouldn't have need of it.
Chris pulled his horse to a stop at the edge of the clearing. Off to their right the waters of the small fishing pond glinted in the sunlight.
Four men were sitting on horseback by the water's edge. Chris could see at least half a dozen other men scattered amongst the trees. Vin and JD were seated on the ground in front of the riders. Their hands were tied in front of them. Chris was too far away to make out any injuries but they were alive. For now, that would have to do.
One of the riders stepped his horse forward. "Well, well, you're here. And on time, I see. Guess I won't be having fun with your boys here."
"Cut the small talk, Cobb. I got your boy here," Chris jerked his head back to where Ezra sat his horse. "I want my men." He uneasily watched Cobb turn to talk to one of the men behind him.
"Baker, cut the ropes on their feet and get them started out there. Keep an eye on them. I don't want no funny stuff." Cobb watched as his man dismounted his horse and pulled a small Bowie knife from his belt. Baker made his way to the two men. The sharp Bowie made short work of the ropes around Vin and JD's ankles.
"Get up," Baker told the two in a surly voice.
JD was forced to help Vin to his feet. Some of his fears had been relieved when Vin had actually responded to his questions in more than one syllable grunts. However, any sudden movement still threatened to put the tracker flat on his face.
"Can't believe Chris is gonna go through with this," Vin said, clearly agitated, as he squinted to look at the two riders across the clearing.
JD wasn't going to look a gift horse in the mouth though. He'd been really scared that Chris would refuse Cobb. He just knew he didn't want to be sent back to Four Corners a piece at a time. He figured they could catch Cobb again later. Hell, they'd done caught him once.
"C'mon Vin, let's go and get this over with." The youth began pulling the tracker towards the center of the clearing. He didn't like keeping his back turned to Cobb and his men but he figured he didn't have a choice. He just hoped that having Chris and his gun there would keep the renegade group from putting a bullet in either one of them.
Chris turned and motioned to Ezra. "Your turn."
Ezra slowly nudged his horse forward. He wasn't looking forward
to this but he supposed it had to be done. He'd certainly miss not
having JD around at the gambling table. The boy kind of grew on you.
Besides, he was always an excellent mark when it came time to find someone
to perform the menial labor required by the job. And Vin? Well,
Vin had a different way of looking at the world than the gambler.
He fascinated Ezra and one needed constant sources
of entertainment living in a place as small as Four Corners. No, Ezra wouldn't want to lose the quiet tracker either. Besides, Vin still owed him interest on the money he'd loaned Nettie Welles.
Ezra slowly walked his horse towards the outlaws arrayed at the other side. From this point, they didn't really have a plan. The idea was just to get Vin and JD far enough away from their captors to give Chris and the others a clear shot. The idea was NOT to provide them with a third captive.
Baker was following behind JD and Vin as they neared the center of the clearing. Vin had regained his balance after he worked the stiffness loose from his limbs. Being tied up for a day or two tended to do that to a man. JD supported him with one hand behind on his arm, ready to catch the tracker in case he fell.
As they neared the rider on the sorrel horse, JD turned a murderous glare on the man. Wait a minute, wasn't that Ezra? His suspicions were confirmed when the rider whose face was hidden by the brimmed of his down turned hat gave him a familiar two-fingered salute. JD almost whooped with joy when he realized who the rider was. He forced himself to remain calm and tried to concentrate on Vin. The tracker's eyes were on the ground in front of him as he tried not to trip on anything. When did walking get to be so hard? JD sidled a bit closer to Vin. He wanted to say something to the tracker but he realized Baker was right behind him and it would be too dangerous.
Ezra's hand reached down to grip the handle of the short barreled gun. He'd only have one chance. He would have to disable the man following Vin and JD with one shot. Shouldn't present too much of a problem, Ezra hazarded. It was getting out of the way of the return fire that might prove a mite difficult. Well, Ezra would have to jump that hurdle when he came to it.
Ezra tried to appear completely nonchalant as his horse came alongside of JD and Vin. He was now close enough for their shadower to see his face and realize Ezra wasn't young Cobb. At that same instant Baker looked up directly into his eyes. Aw hell, Ezra thought as he scrambled for the Conversion.
"What the hell?" Baker exclaimed loudly. "You ain’t --"
Baker never finished his sentence. The slug caught him square through
Ezra didn’t waste any time viewing the results of his marksmanship. The report from the gun still rang in his ears as he kicked his feet free of the stirrups and dove from the horse straight into JD and Vin. All hell broke loose around him, as the three of them hit the ground in a tangle of arms and legs.
Chris hit the ground with his gun drawn holding his horse between him
and the Cobb gang. Snapping off shots at the milling men in front
of him he made his way quickly to the stand of trees he’d stopped his horse
beside. He let the animal go as he took up a more sheltered position.
He could hear the sounds of the long guns of Josiah, Nathan, and Buck as
they joined in the fight. Chris sighted along the short barrel of
the .45 carefully choosing his next shot. His target staggered backwards
his gun dribbling from his finger. Chris paused in his attack to
assure himself of the whereabouts of Vin, JD, and Ezra. The three
of them were still in view
struggling to reach the scant cover of the trees.
Ezra ducked and cursed as a bullet spat sand into his face. He wasn’t as concerned with reaching cover as he was with making himself as small a target as possible. It wasn’t easy. Vin had gone down and stayed down making no attempt to pull himself out of the way. To top it off, Vin and JD’s hands were still tied tied behind them. Making it almost impossible for the two men to move with any speed along the ground.
Ezra inched his hand down his leg not raising his head more than a few inches from the ground. He snatched the small knife he kept hidden in his boot top. Rolling over he quickly sliced through the bonds that held JD’s hands. JD began frantically shaking free of the ropes. To reach Vin, Ezra was forced to raise himself over the top of JD. He was gratified to see the tracker blinking his eyes into focus. Ezra sawed at the ropes and Vin gave him a weak imitation of his customary grin. Just as he felt the knife break the last threads of the rope holding Vin, a hot sharp slice of pain registered in his arm.
Ezra dropped the knife, “Gawddammit all to hell.” He rolled off of JD clutching at his arm with the hand that held the Richard’s Conversion. He could feel the blood trickling through his fingers.
It was JD who grabbed him by the collar whispering harshly, “Move Ezra. Now!!”
Before complying, Ezra emptied the last rounds from the Colt into the crowd of outlaws shooting at them. Two more men went down but Ezra never noticed. JD’s insistent hands finally got him moving towards the copse of trees. JD and Vin followed as quickly as they could, snaking along the ground on their bellies hoping like hell that no one used them for target practice.
It seemed an eternity to Chris but finally all three men made it to
the relative safety of the trees. He watched as JD snatched the Colt
from Ezra’s hands. The boy was kneeling hunched over Ezra and seemed
to be demanding something from the conman. Ezra waved his good hand
towards his shirt pocket before clutching at his bleed arm. JD fumbled
around in the chest
pocket until he came up with more .45 caliber slugs for the gun. He began feeding the cylinders. JD was forced to flatten himself against the tree beside Ezra when a ricochet buried itself in the tree throwing splinters into his face. He fumbled the last of the bullets into the gun.
With all three men under cover and at least one gun between them, Chris turned his attention back to the renegades. Now, instead of laying down a suppressing fire he was able to carefully choose his shots. He didn’t have to think hard about who he was going to take out. Cobb’s men had scattered across the clearing. Those trying to escape were easy pickings for Josiah and Nathan. Finally, the target of Chris’ anger showed himself. William Cobb had seen his last sunrise.
Vin lay back against the rock and closed his eye with a sigh. His shirt hung open revealing a large bandage wrapped around his ribcage. Nathan had confirmed his own diagnosis of cracked but not broken ribs. His head wound had been cleaned and freshly bandaged. Now all the tracker wanted to do was sleep for a week.
JD was having an uncharacteristically quiet reunion with Buck.
Buck was holding his boots and rubbing them affectionately. It would be
several more days, before his injured feet could tolerate boots but he
wasn't letting them out of his sight. That's twice someone had taken
his boots. Nobody had any respect for other people's property nowadays.
Ya just didn't steal a man's boots,
Josiah finished tying up the last of the renegade men. Chris watched
closely his rifle at the ready. Josiah stood up stretching the kinks
from his back just in time to hear Ezra's lengthy objection to the cleaning
of his wound.
Ezra loudly protested Nathan's treatment of the graze to his arm. The healer had just finished cleaning the wound with a bottle of whiskey much to Ezra's disgust. Whiskey had more preferable applications. However, Nathan just shook his head and rolled his eyes and continued his work. He was preparing to bandage it when Ezra snatched his arm back.
"Mr. Jackson," the gambler declared, "I believe you are enjoying this."
Nathan chuckled and pulled Ezra's arm back. "Well, just be glad you ain't wearin' that fancy red jacket you like so much. Now just hold still till I get this hole covered up. No sense invitin' the dirt in."
Nathan tied off the bandage and sat back on his heels. The wound shouldn't give Ezra too much trouble. He'd be sore for awhile. Wouldn't be too limber with those cards he was so fond of but the arm should heal fine.
Ezra flexed his arm carefully before eyeing Nathan with a speculative look. Well, if he didn't ask, he'd never know the answer. "Mr. Jackson, I have a dilemma. Perhaps I could procure your assistance?"
"Whaddya got in mind?" Nathan asked him suspiciously. You just never knew what shenanigans Ezra was going to get up to.
"I assure you my dear sir, what I require is beyond reproach." Ezra leaned closer and began explaining his plan to Nathan.
Chris bent down and touched Vin's shoulder and spoke softly. "You ready to go, cowboy?"
Vin grinned at Chris ruefully. "Yeah, just give me a hand gettin' on my horse."
Chris could hear the pain in the younger man's voice. They'd have to take their time getting back to town. Chris helped him mount his horse before swinging into his own saddle. Looking around, he was grateful. They had survived and were still seven.
"Tch, tch," Chris clicked his teeth and nudged his horse into a trot
lead. The others quickly followed.
"Last one to the saloon buys the drinks," JD joked. Laughing, the seven headed home.
Maude stepped into the late afternoon sun. She was looking forward to convincing Ezra of the validity of her plan over dinner tonight. If only he would arrive home -- What was this? A group of dusty riders were making their way down the main street, although Maude had to use the term loosely. Four Corners was more of a camp than a town. Maude watched the group intently. Chris Larabee and his associates appeared to have arrested several rather unsavory looking characters. Her eyes traveled over the group looking for a familiar face. But where was Ezra? She didn't see him among the peacekeepers. Wait, was that a travois? No. Surely the still figure lyin' there couldn't be her darlin' boy.
"Ezra! What happened to my boy?" Maude called as she hurriedly made her way to the travois. Ezra's eyes were closed and he looked pale against the rough blanket making up the travois. A second blanket was pulled up over his body. Mindless of the effects of the dirt on the pale blue gown she wore, Maude knelt in the street beside the gambler. A shaking hand reached out to touch Ezra's cheek.
"Oh, Ezra, Ezra, darlin'. This is all my fault. If only I hadn't badgered you into doin' somethin' you didn't want to do. Perhaps, I could have convinced you to come with me."
The 6 mounted peacekeepers exchanged uneasy glances as they watched a tear escape Maude's eye to fall on Ezra's chest. Ezra's eyes fluttered open. A wistful smile crossed Maude's face. Her son's eyes had always been a comforting reminder of his father.
"Mo - ther," Ezra gasped. He twisted slightly on the travois. Maude reached down to grasp the hand that lay limply on the wool blanket. "I - I'm sorry."
"Darlin' you don't have anything to be sorry for. I'm the one who's sorry. Nathan, isn't there something you can do?" Nathan dropped his eyes to the back of his horse's neck. Tears were openly running down Maude's face now.
"I - I let - you down." The southerner's voice was fading and weaker.
"Oh, darlin' I don't care about any of that. If you'll only get well, I'll never ask you for help with a con again. Please darlin' I couldn't bear to lose you. Whatever will I do without my baby boy?"
"Do - you - mean that - mother?" Ezra's voice was barely a whisper now.
"Darlin' of course I do. I love you." Maude declared passionately.
"Well then Mother, I'm happy to report that I'm feelin' much better." Ezra sat up and threw the blanket off with a flourish. He tried not to wince as his injured arm protested his exuberance.
"Let's get these boys locked up." Chris hid a grin as he clapped JD on the shoulder.
"I'm goin' to get these two up to my clinic and into bed." Nathan indicated a protesting Vin and a highly amused Buck. "Josiah, can ya give me a hand?"
"Certainly Brother Jackson." Josiah's voice rang out pleasantly as he reached up to help Buck off his horse. Nathan had already pulled Vin down and was helping the reluctant tracker up the stairs of his clinic.
"Ezra! You tricked me!" Maude's voice was shocked, but Ezra thought he detected a little gleam of pride as he kissed her on the forehead.
"I love you too mother. Now, would you do the honor of accompanying me to dinner?"
Ezra levered himself off the travois. He pulled his mother to her feet and offered her his arm. Studying him for a moment, Maude finally tossed her head and gave him her most charming smile.
"Darlin' you'll simply have to visit me in N'Orlins next year. The Remingtons
have the most lovely daughter . . ."