Doug McKenna and his partner in crime, Will Tyler, rode into Four Corners early the next morning. Heading straight for the Livery Stable, they overpowered the man working there, leaving him trussed up like a chicken in the grain bin. Turning their mounts out into the corral, they strolled nonchalantly along the street until they reached the hotel, where they went in and ordered breakfast.
The table they had chosen afforded them a clear view of the stairs and the newspaper office. They had no intention of missing Butlers visit.
The man in question came down a few minutes later, but he only stopped for a quick cup of coffee. After he had spoken to the man at the front desk, the Army buyer placed his hat upon his head and made his way across the street. The two men gave him a few minutes start, and then they got up from the table and followed him.
+ + + + + + +
"Good day, Mrs. Travis."
Mary turned with a smile as Sam Butler stepped through the front door.
"Good morning," she greeted pushing a strand of hair from her eyes. "Youre early. Im not quite ready yet."
"Thats no problem. Ill just wait until youve finished what youre doing." He settled himself in a chair, and then glanced up as the door leading to the print room was pushed open. "I see you have some help," he remarked, staring at the tow-headed boy with the broom in his hand.
"Its my son," Mary said, a touch of pride in her voice as she gestured for him to come over. "Billy, say hello to Mr. Butler. Hes from the Army."
Billy propped the broom against the wall and held his hand out to the buyer.
"Hello, Sir," he said politely.
"Hello, Billy." Butler took his hand solemnly and shook it. "A pleasure to meet you, young man."
At that precise moment the front door opened again, and two men entered, their guns drawn. Mary gasped, and pulled Billy around behind her. Butlers hand went to the inside of his jacket, but the first man waved his pistol at him and shook his head.
"Not another inch," McKenna growled. "Or they both die. Tyler get his gun."
As the second man relieved him of his weapon, the Army buyer glared angrily at McKenna.
"What do you want?" he demanded.
"Now what kind of question is that?" Tyler laughed at him. "We want the ten thousand dollars youve got."
Butler shook his head. "I dont have that kind of money."
"Yes, you do," McKenna stated, putting the muzzle of his gun under the mans chin, and forcing him back against the wall. "You forget, we know who you are, and how much the Armys willing to pay for them horses."
The buyers shoulders slumped. There was no point trying to bluff these men.
"Alright, but I dont have the money on me."
"Of course you dont. But you can get it easy enough from the bank."
"Why should I?" Butler was still defiant, but he could sense that the two men had the upper hand.
"Cos well be waiting here, all cosy like, with Mrs. Travis and the boy - wont we Will?"
Tyler leered at the blonde woman, and Butler felt his blood run cold. The lives of these two innocents were in his hands, and he knew there was only one course of action he could take.
"Okay," he agreed. "But I want your word that youll release them unharmed when I get back."
"Sure. Now go!" McKenna shoved him towards the door. "The sooner you get back, the sooner well be gone. And remember one word to anyone " He let the threat hang as Butler left.
"Are we really just gonna leave when he gets the money?" Tyler asked, eyeing the terrified woman lasciviously.
"No." McKennas eyes narrowed dangerously. "Theres something I have to do first. I want Tanner dead!"
Mary heard his words, heard the venom in his voice, and wondered who he was and why he hated Vin so much, but it wasnt a problem she could worry about at the moment. For now, all she was concerned with was her own and Billys safety.
The minutes dragged slowly by as McKenna paced the room, waiting for Butler to return. Tyler perched himself on the edge of Marys desk, his lude gaze making her feel extremely uncomfortable, and she trembled as she hugged Billy to her.
"Here he comes," McKenna announced suddenly, as he stared through the window. Butler was crossing the street, and Doug could see the bulge of a money-belt around his waist. He eased the office door open, and dragged the man inside as he reached for the handle.
"Alright take it off slowly and put it on the desk, and youd better pray its all there!" McKenna cocked his gun and levelled it at the buyer as he cautiously unfastened the belt and placed it on the desk. "Step back. Will count it."
Tyler thrust his gun back in the holster and opened the pouches, pulling the bundles of money from each of them. It took him a while, but eventually he had ten neat piles stacked in front of him.
"Its all there, Doug," he stated, picking up one stack and fanning the notes through his fingers. "Every last dollar!"
Without any warning, McKenna spun the Army buyer around and brought his gun barrel crashing down on the back of his head. Mary stifled a scream as Butler dropped to the floor, and Billy buried his face against his mother.
"You get over there."
McKenna motioned her to one side as he pulled a length of cord from his pocket and rolled Butler onto his stomach. He passed the cord to Tyler, and aimed his gun at the back of the buyers head.
"Tie him up," he commanded. "And make sure its good and tight."
While the two men were occupied with making sure that Butler couldnt escape, Billy pulled out of his mothers grasp and edged cautiously towards the front door. Mary felt him go, saw him moving, and frantically shook her head, but for one of the few times in his life, the boy ignored her. His hand reached out and grasped the handle, then he yanked the door open and was off and running, yelling Chris name, as McKenna turned with a curse.
Drawing his revolver, he took aim through the open door at the fleeing child.
"No!" Mary screamed, throwing herself at the man and clawing at him like a wildcat. She heard the gun go off, and saw the bullet hit the water barrel to the left of Billy, as Vin Tanner suddenly darted across the street and scooped the boy up. She saw him turn, and then freeze for some inexplicable reason.
With a snarl of rage, McKenna yelled the name as he flung the woman aside, and she watched helplessly as he fired again, and the Texan dropped where he stood.
+ + + + + + +
Vin was dozing on the seat outside the saloon, the sun warm on his face as it crawled its way across the sky. He had seen the chubby man in the brown check suit and Derby hat leave Marys office, go to the bank, and then return a short while later, but he had paid little attention to the whole incident as he closed his eyes and leaned back. Suddenly he heard a child shouting, calling for Chris, and he was instantly awake as Billy Travis erupted from the newspaper office and began running down the street towards him.
Scrambling to his feet, the tracker stepped off the edge of the sidewalk just as the sound of a gunshot echoed through the air. He heard Ezra's voice behind him as he came from the saloon, but he was running before the reverberation had died away, and he snatched Billy up and turned with him - and saw the water gushing from the split barrel.
Suddenly he was back at the river, water swirling around the legs of his mount, and he heard Chris shout. He felt the hammer-blow as a bullet buried itself in his side, and then the searing pain in his head, followed by cold and total blackness. The Texan blinked, and he was back on the main street of Four Corners, and then he felt again the sickening pain as a bullet ripped through his flesh and he collapsed in the dirt.
With instincts born of self-preservation, the townspeople had cleared the street before the second shot sounded, scurrying for what cover they could find, slamming doors and pulling down shades, but Billy Travis was terrified. He was pinned beneath the Texan's outstretched arm, and he struggled frantically to free himself. Suddenly a shadow fell across him and he looked up as Chris and Ezra flung themselves down beside him.
"Chris!" The boy threw his arms around the gunslinger's neck, and Larabee reached up to ruffle the blond hair.
"It's okay, son," he soothed. "I've got you."
"Chris, I suggest we get out of here."
Ezra had grasped the tracker by the shoulders and started to drag him back towards the safety of the saloon, as Chris drew his gun and covered their backs. They had almost reached the bat-wing doors when a volley of shots gouged chunks out of the timber and tore splinters from the doorframe as they hurled themselves through it. Chris heard a yelp and a curse from Ezra as he flattened himself against the wall, and started to return fire. He could hear the crackle of handguns further down the street, and he knew that the others had entered the fray, but he no idea what any of it was about. The gunslinger risked a glance over his shoulder, seeing Ezra bending over Vin.
"How is he?"
"Remarkably lucky, I'd say. The bullet's torn a chunk out of his leg, but I think he just had the breath knocked out of him by the fall."
"Why the Hell was he just standing there?"
"I don't... Whoa, easy there, my friend." There was the sound of movement, and Chris looked around again as Vin struggled against the gambler's restraining hand.
"You stay put!" the gunslinger ordered. "Ezra - sit on him if you have to."
"It'll be my pleasure." Blood marked the gambler's cheek where he'd been caught by some flying splinters, and he wiped at it with the back of his hand as he pulled a large handkerchief from his pocket, folded it into a pad, and pressed it against Vin's wound.
The shooting had stopped for the moment and Chris squatted on his heels, reloaded his gun, and put it back in his holster. He glanced across at the boy crouched under the table, and smiled at him.
"Billy, come here a minute, son."
The youngster crawled across the floor and sat down beside Chris, and the gunslinger put an arm around his shoulders and tipped his face up.
"Do you know what's going on?"
The boy's eyes were wide and he was trembling with fear as he nodded.
"He's got my mom!" There was a quiver in his voice and he was very close to tears. "Don't let him kill my mom."
"Trust me, Billy, I won't let anyone hurt her. Now, who's got her?"
Billy frowned. "I don't know his name," he said. "But I've seen him around town watching Vin."
Chris looked over the boy's head and met the gambler's emerald gaze.
"McKenna! I might have guessed."
"But what does he want?" Ezra wondered, helping Vin into a sitting position. The tracker was pale, and he had his hand pressed firmly against his right thigh, just above the knee. Blood had soaked through the makeshift dressing and now dripped from his fingers, but he didn't seem to be too badly hurt.
"Who's McKenna?" he asked, through gritted teeth.
"Hes " Chris paused. He didnt really want to tell Vin that he was the brother of a young man he had killed. He didnt know how the Texan would react to that. "Hes probably the man who shot you down at the river, remember?"
The gunslinger could have bitten his tongue off as he said the last word but, to his complete amazement, Vin nodded.
"I remember that," he said slowly, frowning in concentration. "I remember riding into the water, and being hit." He stopped and shook his head. "Its still blank after that."
Chris opened his mouth to speak, but he was interrupted by a shout from outside.
"Hey Larabee. You hear me?"
Chris climbed to his feet, shooing Billy back under the table.
"I hear you, McKenna. What dyou want?"
"You want this pretty little newspaper lady back I wanna get out of here."
The gunslinger leaned his head back against the wall, and thought for a minute. "Billy no, stay where you are, son. I want you to think very carefully. Who else is in the office with your mom?"
"That man, another man, and the man from the Army. But they hit him and tied him up."
"Butler! It all makes sense now."
"If I was a gambling man," Ezra said, straight faced. "I would bet that they have relieved him of all his worldly goods."
Chris scowled at him, and then turned back to the street as McKenna called again.
"Im listening, but you still havent answered my question."
"I want three horses and safe passage out of town. And I want Vin Tanner."
"He killed my brothers."
Brothers? Ezra mouthed over Vins head. Chris shrugged and glanced at the tracker, who was struggling to get to his feet.
"What are you doing?" the gunslinger demanded.
"You heard what he said!" Vin hissed, as he tried to put weight on his injured leg.
"Damn it, Chris! If he gets me maybe hell let Mary go."
"Maybe," the gunslinger agreed. "And maybe hell kill you both."
Ezra was looking from one to the other, all the while keeping a hold on Vin as he wobbled precariously. "Gentlemen, I "
Chris saw the stubborn look on Tanners face, and shrugged in resignation. "Alright, have it your way." He turned away with a sigh, and then suddenly spun round. "Vin!"
The tracker lifted his head at the sound of his name, and Chris right fist lashed out, catching him squarely on the jaw. The Texan went down as though he had been pole-axed, but Ezra caught him before he hit the floor.
"Have you taken leave of your senses?" he exclaimed, easing the unconscious man down.
"You have a plan!" It was a statement rather than a question, and Ezra snapped his fingers as a grin lit up his face. "What is it?"
"We give McKenna what he wants." The gambler stared at him in open-mouthed amazement. "Trust me, Ezra, I think itll work. Listen."
Less than a minute later, three shots were fired from the newspaper office, shattering the front windows of the saloon. Chris was relieved to hear no answering volley from his friends. They were all aware now that Mary was being held hostage, and they werent prepared to risk her life.
"Im getting sick of waiting," McKenna called.
"Alright," Chris shouted back. "Give me ten minutes and Ill get the horses for you. But Tanners dead." He silently apologised to the other four and Mary Travis for the deception, but his plan depended on everyone believing him. However, McKenna wasnt prepared to take anything at face value.
"You got five minutes and I want Tanners body!"
The gambler nodded. He had one of the white bar towels tied around the barrel of his gun, a makeshift flag of truce. "I hope you know what you're doing," he said, his green eyes cold and calculating. "Because if anything goes wrong I may just kill you myself."
Chris had never heard such suppressed anger in the Southerners voice before, and he had no doubt that he would carry out the threat. What Ezra didnt realise was how much the gunslinger hated himself at the moment. It went against everything he stood for to use Vin injured and helpless as he was as bait, and chance his life on such a risky plan.
"Get going," he snapped. "Times running out."
Ezra gave the unconscious Texan one last look before he stepped through the bat-wing doors, holding the white flag in front of him. Chris flattened himself against the doorframe and called out to the man across the street.
"Dont shoot, McKenna. Hes going for the horses. Buck, JD cover him."
Chris crouched down and spoke to the boy still hiding under the table.
"Now, you remember what I told you, Billy?"
"Sure, Chris." The youngster gazed at him trustingly. "Im to stay here and wait until you come back with my mom."
"And dont come out, no matter what you hear. Understand?" Billy nodded. "Good boy!"
Less than five minutes later, Ezra was back. As Chris had instructed, he fastened two horses to the hitching rail outside the newspaper office, and then led the third back to the saloon, slipping the reins around the rail there. Stepping onto the sidewalk, he backed through the door, carefully watching the building opposite.
"We got lucky," Ezra told Chris, as he pulled the towel from his gun. "Josiah was at the Livery when I got there. I told him what you had planned. Hes going to try and get word to the others that Vins alive."
At the moment.
He didnt have to say it; Chris could hear it in his voice.
"Good. Now give me a hand."
While Ezra had been getting the horses, Chris had ripped several towels into strips and bandaged Vins leg, wrapping it tight until the bleeding had almost stopped, and he hoped it would hold until Nathan got to him. Larabee bent down and grasped the trackers shoulders, while Ezra took his feet. Carrying him outside, they laid him face down across the saddle of the horse, and Chris used his bandana to fasten the Texans wrists to the stirrup so he wouldnt slide off. He rested his hand briefly on the tousled head, and then signalled for Ezra to lead the animal back down to the newspaper office. Now came the most dangerous part of the plan.
Slowly, cautiously, watching all the time, he inched his way across the street, praying that McKennas attention was centred on the horse that Ezra led slowly up to the newspaper office. Once he was certain he was out of sight, Chris darted down a side alley, making his way quickly along behind the buildings until he reached the one he wanted.
Billy had told him that his mother rarely locked the back door, and as Chris gripped the handle and turned it he felt it give easily. Pushing it open a crack, he drew his revolver and peered in. In the centre of the room was the large press that Mary used to print the newspapers, while large bundles of blank paper were stacked to his right. Easing the door open a little further, he could see another open door leading to the outer office, where Mary was obviously being held. Crouching low, he crept in, pausing when he heard voices.
"Looks like he was telling the truth," one mans voice said.
"Maybe," came the reply. "But I dont trust him. Wait until the fancy pants has gone, then go and check."
Chris knew he didnt have much time a matter of minutes, if that. As soon as one of the men went to check on Vin, and found he was alive, then all hell would break loose. On silent feet, he made his way around the machinery, stopping just before he reached the door.
Peeking through, he could see the bound and motionless form of the Army buyer, with Mary huddled on the floor to his left. Her eyes were red, and her face streaked with tears as she stared at the backs of the two men holding her hostage. Chris needed to get her attention, and fast, without alerting McKenna and his partner. Glancing around, the gunslinger saw a scrap of paper on the floor, and he snatched it up. Rolling it into a tight, hard ball, he took careful aim and tossed it through the doorway.
His aim was good; the paper caught Mary on the cheek, and she looked around startled, her eyes widening in disbelief when she saw him crouched in the back room. Putting his finger to his lips, he motioned for her to make her way towards him.
She nodded quickly, and shuffled her way closer, freezing when one of the men turned to check on her, then she carried on when he looked away again. She had almost made it when her foot caught in the hem of her skirt, and she sprawled headlong.
The two men spun around, but Chris was ready. Hurling himself over Mary and to the right, his first bullet caught Tyler in the head, and he died without even firing a shot. McKenna was a little luckier, managing to get off two rounds as Mary flung herself to safety in the back room. His first shot hit the wall a few inches above the head of the fast moving gunslinger, and Chris felt the second rip through his shirt without touching flesh. As he hit the floor and rolled onto his knees, he fired once, carefully placing his shot. He wanted McKenna alive
At such close range, his bullet tore right through the robbers shoulder, and he was slammed back against the wall, his weapon dropping from nerveless fingers. Chris scrambled to his feet and kicked the gun away, throwing a cursory glance at Butler as he groaned his way back to consciousness before squatting on his heels to stare at the man who had caused so much pain and despair over the last few weeks. McKenna was still conscious, and despite the agony in his shoulder, he forced a mocking grin to his lips as he glared back at Chris.
"I still got the last laugh," he hissed painfully. "That damn trackers dead." His grin faded as he closed his eyes. The gunslinger grabbed the front of the mans shirt, oblivious to the fact that he had passed out, and drew his fist back.
Suddenly Mary was there, and she held onto Chris arm with surprising strength. The man in black took a deep breath and relaxed, pushing McKennas limp form away from him, and he glanced up at the blonde woman, seeing for the first time the fear and anguish on her strained features. Pushing himself up, Chris put his hands on Marys shoulders.
"Its over," he said quietly. "Youre safe."
"In the saloon. Ezras with him. " He smiled. "Thats one brave boy youve got."
"Thank God!" Mary felt the relief flood through her, and she rested her head briefly against Chris chest. Feeling a little awkward, Larabee put his arms around her in a gesture of comfort, but then she pulled away and stared up at him, a stricken look on her face. "Oh God Vin! I heard him he said he was " She stopped when she realised Chris was shaking his head.
"Hes gonna be okay," he assured her. "Although Nathans gonna have to do a little more doctoring on him."
She laughed suddenly with relief, all the remaining tension draining away. "Vins going to hate that," she told him.
"I know." Larabee gently moved her aside, seeing the way she averted her eyes from the bloody mess that was Tyler, and opened the front door a few inches.
"Buck. JD. Its Chris. Were coming out. Ezra, bring Billy out."
Having given the others warning that a friend would be the next person from the office, Chris pulled the door open and stepped out, with Mary just behind him. He saw the gambler coming across the street, one hand on the shoulder of Billy Travis, and he heard Mary give a sob of relief when she saw her son safe and unhurt. Leaving them to their reunion, he turned to the horse standing patiently at the hitching rail with the limp form of Vin Tanner draped across its back. He ducked under the animals neck, and bent down by the Texans head, untying his wrists from the stirrup. As he pulled the bandana free he heard the tracker groan.
"Vin? You awake?" He looked into his face as the blue eyes slowly opened.
"Yeah, partner. Im here. Lets get you down."
"You hit me!"
There was such hurt and disbelief in the Texans voice that Larabee almost laughed aloud. Suddenly a hand dropped on his shoulder, and he turned to find Josiah at his side.
"Let me give you a hand," the ex-preacher said, and between them they got Vin from the horse and into the shade on the sidewalk. Chris knelt down behind him, propping him up against his knee as Nathan came forward to check his leg. The Texan leaned back against Chris with a stifled moan, and the gunslinger stared out over the top of his head, watching as his friends quickly and efficiently went about their tasks.
There would be some awkward questions to answer later most of them from Vin, he suspected - but for now he was just relieved that they had all come through it more or less in one piece.
+ + + + + + +
More than two hours passed before Chris could get to the clinic.
Tylers body had been taken to the undertakers, and McKenna was safely in a cell, waiting for Nathan to see to his shoulder. The healer had insisted on tending to Vin first, a decision that nobody argued with, but once Josiah and Buck had carried him back to the clinic, Nathan followed Chris over to the jail.
A groggy-looking Sam Butler sat in front of JDs desk, making a statement, but Mary had taken Billy home. Whilst Nathan treated the still unconscious McKenna, Chris had gone down to the telegraph office and sent a wire to the Marshalls office for JD, informing them of the mans capture, and requesting a prison wagon and armed escort to come and collect him.
Then the gunslinger approached some of the townswomen, and asked them a favour. Within minutes four willing ladies set to work with hot water and scrubbing brushes to clean all traces of the bloody battle from Marys office.
When he got back to the jail Nathan and Sam Butler had gone, and once he had checked with JD to see if there was anything else he wanted doing, Chris made his escape.
"Chris, can I talk to you?"
The gunslinger paused, one foot on the bottom step leading up to Nathans rooms, and he turned to face Mary Travis.
"Maam," he said, touching his hat.
She looked at him for a moment, and took a deep breath.
"Thank you for what you did," she said, but he just shrugged.
"It werent nothing."
"Yes it was. You saved our lives!"
Chris rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Well, the way I see it, Billy saved himself with a little help from Vin."
Mary glared at him angrily. "Damn you, Chris Larabee! Why do you argue and make it so difficult for people to thank you?"
"Youre welcome, Mary," Chris said with a grin, and as she stared into his hazel eyes, Mary got the distinct feeling that he was teasing her. Her eyes narrowed and she tilted her head on one side as she considered something else.
"Whose idea was it to use Vin as bait?" she asked suddenly.
"It Vin agreed to it." Chris evaded the question, but Mary wasnt satisfied.
"How could he? He was unconscious."
"Well, he wouldve," the gunslinger conceded.
"So you risked his life like that to "
Chris cut her off with a gesture. "It wasnt a decision I made lightly," he replied, and the tone of his voice told her that the matter was now closed as far as he was concerned. "Besides, you got a great story for the paper."
Mary gave an exasperated sigh. "Men!" she exclaimed, and stalked away.
Chris was still smiling when he entered the clinic, but his grin faded when he saw Vin. The Texan was propped up in bed with his eyes closed. Nathan had cut away the leg of his pants, and the clean white dressing stood out against the tanned skin of his thigh. The gunslinger studied him for a moment, seeing the fading bruises and grazes on his chest, and the healing scar across his ribs, and he pulled a wry face. The last two weeks had been particularly rough on his friend, but with McKenna facing a hang-mans rope for his crimes, the tracker would have the chance to get his life back in order.
"Howdy, Chris." Nathan came out of his room, having finished freshening up and putting on a clean shirt. "Everything sorted?"
"Pretty much." Chris glanced at the bed again, and Nathan smiled, knowing he was still worried.
"Hes gonna be fine. I didnt even need to stitch his leg, but he wont be able to put much weight on it for a few days yet." The healer chuckled. "Mind you, I think itll be a while before he forgives you for hitting him."
Chris looked closer at Vins face, wincing as he saw the bruise darkening his left cheek and running down his jaw. "I didnt think Id hit him that hard."
"Well, you did," came a petulant voice from the bed, and Chris realised the Texan was looking at him. Nathan laughed out loud, and clapped the gunslinger on the shoulder.
"Well, Im off to get a beer. Ill see you later."
"Thanks, Nathan." Chris voice dripped sarcasm, and he held up his hand as the healer opened his mouth. "I know dont tire him."
Chris waited until Nathan had gone and then he dragged a chair over to the bed.
"Do you need anything?" he asked, before he sat down.
"Some water, please."
The gunslinger poured a glass from the jug on the side, handing it to Vin and sitting down. He watched as the Texan took small sips, unable to open his mouth too far, and he felt another little piece of guilt settle on his shoulders.
"So what happened? Did you get Mary out?" Vin put the glass down, and leaned forward eagerly, desperate to know how things had turned out.
"Yeah, thanks to you."
"Me?" The tracker frowned, trying to remember what he had done. "I got Billy sort of."
"Theyre both safe, and McKennas in jail."
"Thank God!" Tanner leaned back and closed his eyes, rubbing at his forehead. "Im starting to remember bits of what happened before. Some of its still a little hazy, but theres one thing thats clear now." He opened his eyes, and there was a wealth of emotion in the blue gaze he turned on the gunslinger.
"You pulled my sorry butt out of that river. You saved my life."
"What else was I supposed to do?" Chris tried to make light of it, but Vin was adamant.
"I wanted to say I was sorry," he began, lowering his gaze and picking at the sheet beneath him. "I said some pretty mean things to you when I wasnt thinking straight."
"Yeah, you did." There was a wicked gleam in Chris eye. It wasnt often he got one over on the tracker, but he was going to enjoy this moment.
Vin heard the laughter in the others words, and he looked up sharply. "But that didnt give you the right to hit me like that."
"Hey, what else are friends for?"
Chris started to laugh, and after a while Vin joined in, stopping only when his jaw started to ache. He regarded the gunslinger frankly. Piece by piece his memory was starting to come back, and when he was up and around, there was one thing he was going to do.
He was going to take his revenge on the black-dressed heller sitting there laughing at him.
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