Disclaimer: The characters of the Magnificent Seven belong to someone besides me.
Notes: I originally posted this as seven short stories on the MagMusings list, but have combined them into one (and fixed them up a bit). Thanks to Gemini and Heidi as always, for their continuing efforts to keep me from looking foolish.
Chris Larabee watched his best friend enter the Saloon, glance around, and exit immediately. The blond gunslinger was sitting in the back corner, able to keep an eye on the place. He knew the tracker had seen him, but still retreated. Curious, but not concerned, the blond returned to his whiskey.
Within a few moments, he saw Tanner peek over the edge of the swinging doors, and then he was gone again. Now the leader was intrigued. It'd been quiet for a couple weeks, very little going on: Ezra was currently attempting, unsuccessfully, to engage townspeople in a game of chance at the center table in the Saloon; Nathan was spending most of his time at the village with Rain; Josiah was working on his church; and JD and Buck were driving each other crazy over at the sheriff's office. Vin Tanner had been out wandering the wilderness, coming in every few days to 'check in.'
Larabee could be a patient man, except when it came to mysteries. And at the moment, his sharpshooter was acting damn mysterious. When the tracker peeked again, the gunslinger rose, quickly crossing the bar, and started to head out the batwing doors. When he was flush against them, the man who had piqued his interest ran through them. Unfortunately he didn't look prior to his entrance, which resulted in the unofficial leader down on his official ass.
Vin's eyes grew huge with shock, and, for the first time since Chris had known him, fear. Then, looking down on his friend, sitting on his keister in a dust pile, the lean man erupted in laughter.
"It ain't funny, Tanner. Help me up," the gunslinger ordered, reaching up an arm. His friend grabbed it and yanked him up, still shaking with mirth.
"Knock it off," the dark clad man growled. One glare around the barroom made it certain that the tracker was the only man who found Larabee's fall amusing, or at least showed his amusement. Chris turned Vin around and shoved him out the Saloon's doors. Once through, he passed his friend and started to march toward the jailhouse.
Vin quickly followed, finally able to contain his laughter. "C'mon Chris, you weren't hurt." The leader kept walking. "The only thing bruised was yer ego." Again, no verbal reply, excepting the ringing of spurs on the wooden planks. "What the hell were ya doing anyway? I thought you was drinking in the corner."
This question garnered a response. "Hell, yes, I was," the blond practically shouted, turning to face his friend at last. "Until some scrawny, shaggy, ex-bounty hunter started his rendition of 'peek-a- boo'."
At this the tracker lowered his head, partially hiding his face with his long brown hair. "Oh, that."
"Yes, 'that.' What in the hell were you doing?" The two were drawing close to the jail, and Chris could see Peso, Vin's horse, tied up outside.
"Checking," the tracker responded softly.
"I said, 'checking what'?"
"Checking to see if it was time." Tanner untied the horse from the hitching post.
At this the gunslinger sighed heavily. "Time for what?" he asked his friend, as Vin mounted Peso.
"Time for you to fall on yer ass," grinned Tanner as he spurred his horse to ride. "Reckon it was," he shouted over his shoulder.
Larabee watched his retreating friend, secure in the knowledge that the smartass tracker would return within a few days; he could wait.
He smiled in anticipation.
Vin Tanner cautiously entered the Saloon, eyes peeled for danger. As a wanted man, he had to be aware of everything at all times, not allowing anyone to sneak up on him, permitting himself no surprises. And there was one man the sharpshooter had to be concerned with at this time: Chris Larabee.
Last time he was in town he'd managed to get the best of Larabee, and he knew the gunslinger would be itchin' for revenge. But he'd rather face the threat head on.
He saw the rest of his friends around the large table near the bar, with an empty seat directly across from the gunslinger. He recalled Ezra had been in the Saloon the day Chris had landed on the ground, and most likely been kind enough to share his sighting with the rest of the group. They, in turn, had surely been more than happy to be on site for Chris' reprisal.
The sharpshooter took a deep breath and dived in; no sense waiting for the punishment. He ambled over to the bar, leaned against it, and signaled Inez for a beer.
"Hey, Pard!" cried Buck. "Nice to have you back."
The tracker tipped his hat at the scoundrel. "Bucklin."
Each of his friends called out their hellos, but Vin remained at the bar watching his best friend. Larabee glanced over the cards in his hand to see the intense look being sent his way.
"You're making me nervous, Tanner. Sit."
Maybe it won't be so bad, Vin thought as he pulled out the available chair and sat down. His descent did not stop as the tampered chair fell apart, sprawling him out on the floor beneath the poker table. Laughter emanated from the bar's patrons, but never rose so loud as to drown out the laughter of his comrades.
"Sucks, don't it, Cowboy?" the blond smirked as he leaned over the table to view his friend upon the floor. After the laughter had died down, six of the seven realized their friend still remained on the ground.
Nathan was instantly concerned. "What's wrong, Vin?" he asked, from his position next to the tracker.
A pained gasp followed from beneath the slouch hat. "I think I hurt m'back."
"Oh shit!" cursed Chris, as he and the rest of the regulators surrounded their fallen friend. The healer was already down checking Tanner out. "Sorry, Pard. It was just a joke," the gunslinger worried.
Vin looked up at his friends' concerned faces and his grimace of pain quickly transformed to a grin. He jumped up and leaned against the counter to watch his friends' reactions.
"Y'all are jest too easy!"
This meant war. Not only had the tracker made a fool of his best friend, rather publicly, he followed through with a strike against the rest of the team as well. This could not go unpunished, and the six men had banded together to ensure their success. Their revenge had been interrupted with not one, but two attempts to rob the bank. With the excitement, the tracker thought maybe his transgressions had been forgotten.
He was a fool.
Under the direction of the resident gambler and conman, the six were instructed to pretend like nothing happened, lulling the unsuspecting sharpshooter into a false sense of security. Knowing how adept Vin was at assessing a situation, the men agreed. They would wait him out.
Six men sat at a table in the Saloon, plotting their friend's downfall. The healer suggested making Vin think he was sick. The scoundrel suggested telling the saloon girls that Vin was diseased. The preacher suggested a baptism in the river. The kid suggested throwing Vin in a pile of horse manure.
The gunslinger waited until they'd finished and turned to the gambler, "What's your plan?"
Ezra gave a gold-toothed grin. "My dear compadres, you must remember that Mr. Tanner is a tracker. I suggest we give him something to track." The rest of the men smiled along with the conman. "And we'll need an innocent participant."
"Like who?" asked JD.
"I believe Mrs. Travis may be recruited."
Vin Tanner and Chris Larabee were seated outside the jailhouse enjoying the day, when they spotted Mary Travis hurrying toward them.
"Something we can do for you, Mrs. Travis?" Chris asked.
"Actually, I was hoping Vin could help me."
At this the tracker rose, strode down the steps, and stood in front of the newspaperwoman. "What can I do for ya, ma'am?"
"You see I told Billy he could take his new horse out riding, but I wanted him back before lunch. I know it's not much past, but I'm getting a little worried." She lifted pleading eyes to meet Vin's. "I'd be so grateful if you would go look for him."
"No problem, ma'am," said the tracker touching the brim of his hat. She informed him Billy had mentioned something about Otter's Pass. Vin nodded and headed toward the livery. Larabee winked at Mary and followed his friend.
He found the tracker saddling Peso. "You want some company?"
"Nah, he should be easy to track down."
Chris watched his friend ride out of town in the direction of Otter's Pass. As soon as the tracker was out of sight, the gunslinger spun and returned to the jail. "He's on his way," he announced to the gathered men.
The plan was to send Vin on a wild goose chase. JD had borrowed Billy's horse earlier and set off on a roundabout course. He'd lead the sharpshooter around in circles before ending up at the old Mill Pond. The boys would head out and be at the pond when Vin arrived, dusty and tired from tracking in the sun all day long.
That was the plan.
After a few hours, Josiah, Buck, Nathan, Ezra, and Chris left for the Mill Pond. They wanted to be there in plenty of time for Vin's arrival. The five men approached the pond, and, as they got closer, saw a horse tied to a tree next to the water.
"JD musta made good time," mused Buck.
As they got closer Chris narrowed his eyes. "Goddammit!" he shouted and spurred his horse into a gallop. Tied to the tree was Peso. "Tanner! Where are you, you sonuvabitch?"
"Stop yer caterwauling. I'm trying to take a nap," replied a drowsy voice from behind a nearby boulder.
The other men rode up and dismounted. The followed their leader behind the rocks. There in the shade, spread out on a bedroll, resting against his saddle, was the smiling tracker. "What took you boys so long?"
The regulators tripped over each other in their astonishment. "How'd you get here?" asked Nathan.
"Rode m'horse," Vin answered.
"But how did you know where to come?" Josiah countered.
"Well I'm sure you fellas figured JD was light enough, but he's still a mite heavier than Billy would be." Vin paused at their furious faces. "And didn't stop at the usual places a young boy might. Since he seemed headed here, in a roundabout way, I jest followed the crow."
The men looked down at the smirking sharpshooter for a few seconds, then Larabee snapped, "That does it." He nodded at the preacher. "Josiah."
Sanchez stepped forward and snatched up the lean man, raising him high. Vin started struggling but was overwhelmed by the larger man's strength. With a short walk, Josiah tossed Tanner, landing the young man in the middle of the pond with a splash.
The tracker waded back out cursing and sputtering. He went behind the rocks to change into some dry clothes from out of his saddlebags. The five grinning men turned at the sound of an approaching rider.
"Hey, guys," JD called out. "I led him 'round real good; it should be awhile before he shows.... What's so funny?"
JD Dunne sat across from his companions in the Saloon. He watched as Buck told a story that brought everyone to tears with laughter. And he waited.
Not one of his friends had apologized to him for making him travel all over the countryside in order to trick Vin and then failing. He was the one out riding around all day long, and no one even cared. They had just laughed when he arrived... long after Vin. And the worst part was he even missed seeing Vin dunked in the pond!
The youngest regulator watched his friends as they laughed, and as he sat, an idea developed. It would surely work, only he would need a little help. Going through the plan in his mind, he picked which two men he would approach. JD would love to be able to pull one over on Buck, and Chris was gone for a few days working on his shack. Nathan would probably disapprove of his plan, and of course, Vin was the main target. That left Josiah and Ezra. The dark-haired youth was certain Josiah would agree to help, because even though he seemed serious most times, he had a humorous side. And the gambler would be up for anything that would make him a little money while confounding his friends.
The game was afoot.
Catching the preacher in his church the next day, JD outlined his plan and was relieved when the older man started to chuckle, then laugh uproariously. He joined the plot immediately. They worked out a few details, and JD left to talk to the conman.
Ezra Standish was playing solitaire at the corner table when JD entered the Saloon. JD sat next to the gambler and within minutes, they had the entire strategy planned. The young man ran off to locate the tracker and set everything in motion.
Tanner was sitting on the boardwalk near the livery when his youthful comrade approached him. "Hey, Vin, whatcha doing?"
"Jest enjoying the day."
"I was wondering if you wouldn't mind doing something for me."
"See, I've been practicing a lot, and I think I'm getting awful good at sharpshootin'."
"And I was thinking maybe we could have a shooting contest."
JD managed to look hurt. "Nothing to joke about, I have been practicing."
"I don't mean ta hurt yer feelings JD, but last time I saw, you was still needin' to brush up a mite."
"I done told you, Vin. I've been practicing. You aren't scared are you? Afraid the 'kid' might beat you?"
"You know that ain't it, JD. Look, if it means that much to ya, we'll do yer shootin' contest."
"All right! I have some bottles set up at the end of town, and we'll try them from over here," he said motioning to the corner of the Saloon.
Vin eyed the positioned bottles his friend pointed to. "They gotta be 700 yards away, JD. Ya sure about this?"
"'Course I am," the young sheriff smugly replied. "Unless you don't think you're up for it?" he taunted.
"I got no problem with it." The tracker shook his head. Vin hated to make a fool of his friend, but he couldn't have the kid getting so uppity where he might do something stupid. Maybe this would teach JD a lesson. "You want to go first?"
"Nah, you can have the first shot."
"And may I ask you gentlemen what you are attempting to accomplish?" drawled a voice behind them.
"I challenged Vin to a shooting contest, Ezra."
"You did what, Kid?" yelled Buck, exiting the Saloon closely followed by Nathan. "You are a damn fool to challenge a sharpshooter to a sharp-shooting contest."
"What is the wager?" asked Ezra, interrupting the argument before it could begin.
"There is none," Vin stated with a pointed look toward his opponent.
"What is a contest without a wager? Unthinkable!" the Southerner huffed.
"You'd need someone willing to bet against Vin. And who's gonna bet on this wet-behind-the-ears greenhorn?" Buck asked as he swatted at the back of JD's head. JD smacked Buck's hand away and moved over next to Nathan.
"I believe I have ten dollars that says more bottles will be broken during Mr. Dunne's turns, than during Mr. Tanner's," ventured the conman.
"Yer on, Ez," Buck agreed.
"Sorry, JD, but this is too good an opportunity to miss," Nathan said as he, too, accepted the bet.
Vin shook his head, and then turned to face the bottles at the end of the road. He steadied his rifle, looked down the barrel, and hit the first bottle directly in the center.
JD whistled, "Good job, Vin. Guess it's my turn." He carefully took aim and fired. Down the street the middle bottle smashed into oblivion. JD smiled and turned around to face his friends. "Close your mouth, Buck," he chuckled.
"You have been practicing, JD. Ready to go again?" At his friend's acknowledgement, Vin aimed and shot, hitting another bottle.
JD aimed, fired, and another bottle was broken. He smirked to the sharpshooter and asked, "Worried?"
"Hell no, Kid. Ya gotta be able to shoot more than one at a time in an emergency. Seconds can count." And Vin stepped up, trying valiantly to ignore his smirking opponent, and shot off three quick rounds: only two bottles were shattered.
"Never seen you miss, Pard," commented the scoundrel.
"Everyone can have an off day, Bucklin," Tanner retorted. "Okay JD, yer up."
Dunne nodded, raising his weapon to his shoulder. Without a pause, he fired three bullets in quick succession. No sound was heard from the regulators as three bottles crashed down. JD grinned in accomplishment and twirled his rifle, before setting it down next to him.
Ezra was the first to speak, "I do believe you gentlemen owe me remuneration. Cash is always acceptable." Grumbling, the two men relinquished their money to the smiling gambler.
"How did you do that, JD?" asked the healer in awe.
"But how did you do it?" Buck asked again.
"Why is it so unbelievable that I'm a good shot?" JD mumbled in frustration.
"That ain't what's in question, JD," Nathan reassured the lad. "What's confoundin' us is how you outshot Vin," he jerked his head at the flushed tracker.
"He got cocky."
At this, Tanner looked insulted. "What?"
JD faced his friend. "I don't mean any offense, Vin," he said, echoing the tracker's earlier sentiments. "But you haven't been practicing lately, and maybe you've been resting on your laurels."
"What the hell does that mean?" questioned Tanner.
Buck answered, "It means you been sitting on yer ass instead of making sure you could still shoot!" The tall man started chuckling. "Hey, JD, if'n we can teach you to track, we can get rid of Tanner altogether."
The other men started laughing at Vin's expression of disgust. "Well, you won fair and square, Kid. Good job," the tracker extended his hand.
JD shook it as he swelled with pride. As a token of his victory, he offered to buy each of the men drinks. His friends happily agreed, moving into the Saloon. Josiah soon joined the men.
"Heard you did well today, Brother Dunne," the preacher said with a slight smile.
"I beat Vin in a sharp-shooting contest," the boy gleefully reported.
"Wish I could've seen it," the big man sighed. He was about to say something else when Mary Travis came up to the table.
"Evenin', Mrs. Travis."
"Are you gentlemen done shooting off your guns in town?" the newspaperwoman asked.
"Yes, ma'am, sorry. We were just having ourselves a little contest," explained Buck.
"And Josiah," Mary said pointedly, "next time could you not shoot at the bottles from in front of Potter's store? It made Gloria's customers nervous." She nodded at the gentlemen as she finished her announcement, and then left the Saloon.
Realization dawned as Nathan, Buck, and Vin all exchanged glances and then their glares turned on the youngest regulator. JD was slowly standing up and backing away with his hands raised up in surrender. "Sorry, guys, I have to go. Catch you later." And he took off running through the bar and out the batwing doors.
Buck waited a beat before sprinting after his friend, yelling, "Wait 'til I getta hold a you, Kid, yer not gonna be able to sit for a week!"
Nathan twirled around and confronted the gambler. "I think you owe us some money, Ezra."
"I don't know what you mean, my friend."
"JD didn't shoot those bottles. You two got Josiah to do it."
"I must admit that was the arrangement: I signaled the preacher, and he shot at the same time as our young friend, actually inflicting the damage on the bottles. However, I did win that money fairly."
"How can you say that?" the dark man asked incredulously.
"The wager was more bottles would be broken when JD shot. There was no specification as to how they were to be broken," the gambler rejoined.
"Damn snake's right, Nate," Vin stated quietly.
Nathan nodded his acknowledgement. "Just remember," the healer warned the conman with a smirk, "paybacks are a bitch."
"I heard already," snarled the gunslinger and stormed away, leaving a very shocked townsperson in the street.
Larabee had only been back in town for twenty minutes and this was the third time someone tried to tell him how JD had outsmarted Vin. Chris was furious. Not only had that 'child' accomplished what he had not, Chris hadn't been there to bear witness to it. The dark clad man was the one being humiliated by that damn cowboy left and right, yet the youngest of the group had been able to take the tracker to task. This wasn't something that Larabee could let go.
He marched into the Saloon, passing by Ezra at the gaming table, and continued on to the back, sitting next to Vin. "Lot of hoopla, Pard," commented the gunslinger.
"Yep," the tracker agreed. "Damn kid got me."
"And I missed it."
They both turned at the sound of the gambler's curse. Chris smiled. "Sounds like Ezra's luck is failing."
The blond downed his whiskey in one swig. "Well, I'm going to my room, sleep in a real bed."
"I'm heading to the bathhouse."
"That time of year already?"
"Fuck you, Larabee."
Ezra Standish watched his fellow regulators leave the Saloon, and turned back to his hand, containing a groan at the cards it contained. Losing five straight rounds to such witless fellows was entirely unforgivable. He could in no way understand why the outcomes were against him.
Until he looked closer at his cards.
He realized they were marked. That part was not entirely surprising. It was the fact that they were marked incorrectly. He'd been handing out the wrong cards all day! Who could have changed his deck?
Ezra looked at each of the men he was challenging and knew immediately that those cretins combined, would barely have enough intelligence to order a drink, let alone re-mark his cards.
Vin Tanner tipped his hat at the man in black and walked over to the bathhouse. He'd been meaning to get cleaned up, but something always seemed to get in his way. It's not as if he were filthy, just a mite dusty. There was no one else in the house, so he stripped down and got into the tub furthest from the door. He leaned his head back and then sank under the water to get rid of some grime in his hair.
The tracker surfaced and shook out his head, spraying water on the floor, and reached for the soap. In the next instant he stopped dead and looked around. Standing around the bathhouse were four of the saloon girls.
"May I help y'all?" asked the tracker trying his best not to stutter.
"Don't worry 'bout a thing, Sugar," said Blossom. "We just need to get ourselves cleaned up." And with that, the woman started to undress and motioned for the others to do the same.
"Why...ahem...why don't I git outta here and you kin have the place to yerselves?" reasoned the blushing gentleman, trying his utmost to keep his eyes fixed on his own area.
Rosita answered, "That would be awfully nice of you, Mr. Tanner. Thank you."
Vin nodded. "Okay, if you ladies would leave for a moment, I'll git dressed and git gone."
"Now that's just plain ridiculous." Blossom around looked at her associates. "It's not like you have anything we haven't seen before, has he, girls?"
Headshakes and negative confirmations were given as the women continued to watch the now red-faced tracker. Vin saw no way out of this fiasco. As he stood up and dressed as quickly as humanly possible, he wondered who could have set him up.
Larabee nodded to his friend when they parted ways. The gunfighter watched Vin go into the bathhouse and then headed up to his room in the boarding house. Although his shack was becoming livable, it wasn't quite there yet. He definitely needed to get a better bed out there. He figured since staying in this town he'd become used to sleeping in a fairly comfortable bed: the gunslinger was going soft. He chuckled at the thought of what his fellow lawmen's reactions to that idea would be.
Chris reached his room and stepped inside, eyeing the bed. Then the blond scanned the room and saw a pack of his cheroots on the dresser. He'd run out yesterday and forgotten his other pack here, so he was in the mood for a smoke before resting. He opened the cover and tapped one out. Placing it between his lips he lit it and inhaled deeply.
On his third inhalation, it exploded.
That night at the Saloon, the seven regulators sat in silence. The only noise heard from the table was the clatter of silverware scraping against the plates, and the clink of glasses. The glares were potent and plentiful as they shot back and forth across the table.
Finally the ladies' man broke the silence. "What the hell is that smell? JD, cain't ya take a bath once in awhile?"
"Like you don't know, Buck," the young sheriff shot back. No one noticed the startled look or the blush emanating from the tracker.
"How should I know why you smell like my horse?"
"I'm sure you're not the one that put manure in my bowler today," JD accused.
"I did no such thing. And I'm sure it wasn't you that had all my pants shortened by a foot! I had to borrow a pair from Yosemite until I could get 'em fixed."
The men started to chuckle at the image of this tall man with his pants resting over his boots. Josiah spoke up, "Turns out someone decided that the good book wasn't good enough."
"What do you mean?" asked Nathan.
"All my bibles were replaced with copies of that dime novel by Jock Steele."
"Seems like I'm not immune to the mad prankster either," stated the healer. "My medicine was dumped out and replaced with whiskey."
"Hell, Nathan. That's not a prank, it's a blessin'!" chuckled the sharpshooter, who usually referred to the medicine as 'horse piss'. "What 'bout you, Ezra?"
The gambler knew he couldn't admit to having his cards marked wrong, unless he admitted they were marked in the first place. "I believe my misfortune to be my own business. What about you, Mr. Tanner?"
"Same here," said the tracker too quickly, ducking his head down.
JD turned to their leader. "Anything happen to you, Chris?"
"Gunpowder in my cheroot," was the growled answer, as if daring them to laugh. No one did.
"Gentlemen, it seems that one of us has been busy. Any takers?" No one came forward with a confession. The glares were scathing, and each man felt the burn while secure in their own innocence.
Then Mary Travis entered the establishment. The men stared as she swept through the crowd and stopped at their table. "Now what did we do?" whispered JD at her approach.
"Good evening, gentlemen."
"I would hope that today taught you a well-deserved lesson," she said looking around at the regulators.
"To what are you referring?" the gambler asked.
"I have the feeling that lately you have forgotten you were hired to protect the town, not to play tricks on each other." The newspaperwoman chuckled at the dazed expressions on the faces of the 'bad element.' She told the healer, "Nathan, I have your medicine and will return it tomorrow. Goodness knows you will need it shortly if your luck holds, gentlemen. And I will have Billy bring your bibles by, Josiah."
Mary smiled as the men realized just who had managed to pull a prank on every one of them. "No hard feelings, gentlemen?"
"Of course not, Mrs. Travis," Chris assured smoothly. "We all know how to take a joke."
Mary smiled, nodded and turned to walk out of the Saloon. When she passed through the swinging doors, the leader continued his thought. "And the best way to take it is with a little revenge."
Seven vengeful men sat in the jailhouse, planning the downfall of the woman responsible for their humiliation. It had been two weeks since each of the men had been caught unawares.
"So we still have no idea how to get Mary back?" Chris Larabee regarded each of his men in turn. "Between the seven of us, we can't come up with one thing to get her with?"
"It's not that easy, Chris," commented Nathan. "Ya got to be careful around women, they're tricky."
"I know. That's the reason we have to get her back." Larabee stared at the regulators spread around the jailhouse. They'd had to meet here because the Saloon had been too crowded to make plans at, and they hadn't wanted to chance Mrs. Travis walking in on them again. "Any ideas at all?"
"Take her out of town and leave her?"
"I don't want to have to arrest myself, Josiah," JD smirked.
"Perhaps we might steal the lady's ink so she may no longer put out her newspaper?" Ezra offered.
"I don't like the idea of messing with someone's livelihood," Nathan responded.
"Cut off her hair?" JD asked.
"Do and yer dead," Chris stated matter-of-factly. Buck and Vin exchanged a grin at this.
"Take her clothes away?"
"It's supposed to be a prank, Buck, not a wish list," JD snorted, then sobered up at a glare from the gunslinger. "Hey, we could get Billy's help."
"To do what?" Buck questioned.
"I don't know, I'm thinking out loud."
"I got an idea," the tracker softly said.
"Pray tell us, Mr. Tanner. Don't keep us all in suspense," drawled the Southerner.
"We'll need Billy's help."
"I can get it." Chris was certain.
"There's this stuff we used ta use for paint when I'se with the tribe."
Vin began to explain his plan, and the evil grins spread.
Chris and Vin were sitting on the porch in front of the jailhouse two days later when Billy Travis came running towards them. "I did it, it's done," he called breathlessly to Chris. "I switched 'em last night b'fore I went to bed."
Tanner bit back a grin, while the gunslinger gave Billy a penny to get some candy at Potter's Store. "Why don't you go over and play at the Hawthorne's 'til this afternoon. I'll cover it with your ma."
"Okay, Chris," the boy said, his eyes shining brightly at the money, before scampering off down the street.
"Wanna tell the boys?" the tracker asked.
"Oh, I figure they'll hear soon enough," his friend answered.
Just as the gunslinger finished his statement, a scream ripped through the air. Townspeople who had gotten up early were alarmed at the sound, and looked over to see what their regulators would do. When the two men continued to sit in contentment, they returned their attention to their own business, with only looks of concern exchanged.
JD came out of the jail with Buck. "Was that what I think it was?" the ladies' man inquired.
"Yep," the tracker nodded. He watched the gambler emerge from the Saloon and look to the newspaper office with a slight smile, gold tooth glinting in the early morning light. Then Ezra turned to the jailhouse, lifting his fingers to his hat in a silent salute.
Nathan emerged from his room and joined Josiah walking to the jailhouse. "Has she shown up yet?" the healer asked.
"Nope." Seven men watched the office, restless with anticipation. Finally the object of their wait burst through the front door, fire in her eyes, and greenish-brown hair framing her angry face. The lawmen tried to keep their expressions neutral as they watched the furious woman storm over to them.
"All right," she yelled. "Which of you did this?"
"Did what, Mrs. Travis?" JD was unfortunate enough to open his mouth first.
"Don't give me your innocent look," Mary shrieked at him, sending the young sheriff to unconsciously move closer to Wilmington for protection. "I know you did something to my hair wash." The newspaperwoman grabbed the ends of her hair and brought them around to the front. "Look at this!" Her hair had been changed to the color of dirty moss.
Ezra had wandered over to stand next to the silent healer.
"That's an awfully strange color to dye your hair, Mrs. Travis," Larabee told the enraged woman.
"I know that I preferred it blonde," Buck agreed.
"The Lord's choice is always first in my book," Josiah added.
"I like it," Vin said. "Reminds me o' nature."
The last comment, so matter-of-factly spoken, sent the regulators over the edge, and they let loose their laughter, heretofore contained.
Mary shot scathing looks at the men before screeching and heading back to her house. Each of the men could hear the tirade continue until she was out of sight. They all were silent as they thought about what they'd done for about a second. Then they laughed until their stomachs hurt, and tears were rolling down their faces. Finally regaining control, the regulators wiped their faces off and sighed.
"So ya think we shoulda tol' her it comes right out with a little carbolic?" Vin asked his friends.
"Hey, Vin, wait up!"
Vin Tanner slowed Peso down to a walk at his friend's call, and waited for JD to catch up.
"Where are you going?" the young sheriff asked.
"Miss Nettie asked me to come by and check her roof. She thinks it's leakin'."
"Great! Casey and I are going fishing, I can ride with you."
Upon reaching the Wells' ranch, Nettie and her niece were on the porch to greet the men. "Hello, Vin, JD. I'm so glad you boys could come."
Casey nodded. "JD, could you help Vin with the roof, and then we can go out to the pond?"
"Sure, I'd be glad to help you out, Mrs. Wells," JD said.
Both regulators climbed up onto the roof and started to check for holes. Half an hour later, neither man had seen any trace of a problem. They got down and went to let Nettie know of their failure to find a leak. Vin called out, but no one answered. "Where could they be?" mumbled Tanner as he headed toward the barn.
"Yes, darling?" Wilmington smirked at the bartender. "My, you're looking lovely today, Miss Inez."
"Maybe you should have a seat right here," the ladies' man said, patting his legs. To his immense surprise, Inez settled herself on his lap.
"Mmm. Much better," she purred.
"Well, now. Ain't this nice. Why the change of heart, senorita?"
"Senor, there's been no change of heart; simply an opening of opportunity." Inez snuggled into Buck's lap, playing with his shirt collar. She leaned in, speaking in a whisper, breathing into his ear, "How would you like to come in the back and... get to know me better?"
"Mr. Sanchez? Mr. Standish? Could I bother you gentleman a moment?"
The grey-haired man grinned. "Of course, Mrs. Potter. What can we do for you?"
"I just received a shipment of grain from Red Fork and I need to move a few bags into the store. Could I count on your help?"
"We'd be happy to lend a hand," Josiah assured her, grabbing onto Standish's jacket before he could get away. "We both would."
"Rain," the healer joyfully called out. "What brings you to town?"
"I need to tell you something."
"What is it?"
"Do you remember the man from my village that asked me to marry him?" She continued at his nod. "I have reconsidered and will be marrying him."
Nathan was shocked. "I don't know what to say."
"You do not need to say anything, sweet Nathan. I just wanted to let you know how much I've enjoyed our time together." She patted his hand and got up, heading for the door.
"Wait!" Nathan jumped up.
"Yes?" Rain turned around expectantly.
Chris Larabee watched as Mrs. Travis came into the jailhouse, frowning. "Something I could help you with, Mary?"
"Yes, do you know where Josiah is? He wasn't at the church."
"He and Ezra went with Mrs. Potter."
"Oh, all right then, thank you."
"Anything I could help you with?"
Mary looked at Chris from head to toe, sizing him up. "No, I don't think you'd be strong enough."
That got the gunfighter's hackles up. He knew he wasn't as big as the preacher, but it wasn't as though he was a weakling. "I think I could manage."
"Well," Mary thought it over, "I guess you can try."
Tanner and Dunne walked into the jail and fell down into chairs. "Man, that's a long way," JD groaned.
Buck sat behind the desk and looked at the two men who just entered. "What happened to you two?"
"I just can't believe it."
"Will you stop saying that, Vin! You've been saying that since we left." JD was annoyed.
"But I can't believe it," Vin repeated.
Wilmington had never seen the tracker so flustered. "What happened?"
"We went out to the Wells' place and ended up walking home."
"What? Why?" Buck asked.
"They took our horses," JD answered.
"I can't believe Nettie played a prank on me." Vin was still shocked.
"Let it go, Vin." The young sheriff shook his head in exasperation. "And Casey was a part of it. I thought she liked me."
Buck grinned. "JD, don't worry. Inez played one on me, too."
"The little lass got me down to my skivvies, and shoved me out the back door of the Saloon."
Vin and JD started laughing. "How'd she get your clothes off?" JD chortled.
"What's the usual method, boy? She asked me."
This set the two laughing again.
"Hey, a woman will only play a joke on ya if she has feelings for ya," Buck defended.
"Yeah," Tanner agreed, "like the feelin's of hate Inez has for Buck."
"Will you girls stop jawin' and let me rest?"
"Chris?" They turned to look at the gunslinger sacked out on the cot in one of the cells, with his hat over his head. "What's with him?"
The ladies' man shrugged. "Don't know. He was already in there when I came in."
"What's going on?" Josiah asked his friends as he walked through the door.
"Chris is makin' like a prairie dog; he won't come outta his burrow."
Ezra came in behind the large man. He pushed JD out of his chair, ignoring the youth's complaint, and sat down heavily, wiping his brow with a handkerchief.
"What's with you?" JD asked, scowling from his new position on the floor.
"I was not meant to be used for menial labor," drawled the gambler.
Josiah leaned against the desk, chuckling. "I'm afraid Brother Ezra and I have been put through the wringer."
"The Widow Potter needed some help bringing a few supplies in from the coach."
"And we ended up rearranging her entire general store," added Standish.
Tanner nodded, squinting his eyes in thought. "Any idea where Nate is?"
The preacher raised his eyebrow and shrugged. "Rain came into town and they've been cooped up in his room since."
"Boy knows how to keep a woman satisfied," Buck smirked.
Just then the object of their discussion came through the door, slamming it behind him. "I can't believe it!"
"Aargh," JD groaned. "Not another one."
Vin swatted the sheriff sitting in front of him. "What hap'ned, Doc?"
"Rain!" The healer started pacing the length of the jailhouse, not an easy task considering the number of men inside. "She came and tole me she was gettin' married."
Shouts of "What?" "To who?" and "When?" were heard throughout the small building.
Jackson waved his hands to silence his fellow regulators. "I damn near proposed to her. Went down on my knee and ever'thin'."
"And...?" Buck snapped when the healer didn't continue.
"And she laughed and kissed me."
"That's good news then, Mr. Jackson. Should we be offering our congratulations?"
"No, she was jest messin' with me. A joke." Nathan held up his hands as if in surrender. "A joke."
"That's six," Tanner stated softly.
"To what are you referring, Mr. Tanner?" inquired the Southerner.
"Everyone got played," Vin said.
At the healer's questioning glance, JD explained what happened to him, Buck, and Vin. Josiah told Nathan about Ezra and his own rearranging duty.
"So the only one not tricked was Chris," Nathan said.
"I wouldn't bet on that. Git out here, Cowboy!"
"Don't make me shoot you, Tanner," called a deep voice from the cell.
"Stop hidin' like a girl and git yer ass out here."
The men held their collective breath as a growl emanated from the dark-clothed man, followed by his rising off the cot. The gunslinger exited the jail cell, face still hidden in the shadows of his hat.
"Chris, what happened to you?" JD's mouth was open in astonishment.
The lantern light exposed the fact that their leader's face wasn't in shadows, it was splattered with black. "I was helping Mary move her press and she accidentally spilt ink on me."
"Accidentally?" smirked Buck.
"So she said." The gunslinger's expression told the others how much of that excuse he believed.
"How did they plan all of this?" Josiah wondered aloud.
"I can't believe they all got together on this." Nathan shook his head.
"I can," JD replied, glumly.
The door to the jailhouse opened and the Seven looked up to see Nettie, Casey, Rain, Gloria Potter, and Mary walk into the room. "You ladies come to gloat?" snarled Larabee.
The ladies just smiled sweetly before parting, revealing another woman at the rear.
"Mother?! You're the mastermind behind this horrific conspiracy?"
The blonde walked over to her son and leaned down, kissing him on the cheek. "Just trying to keep you on your toes, darling," she told him, smiling at his bewilderment.
The women laughed and started to scatter themselves around the small building. Rain snuggled against Nathan. "I was right; you are crazy about me."
Casey ran over to JD, teasing the young man about how easily he was tricked. Nettie smiled over her niece's head at Vin, his slight smile in answer showing he bore no ill will.
Mrs. Potter thanked Ezra and Josiah for their help, and she managed to keep a straight face while doing it. Mary wasn't so fortunate, she kept giggling as she apologized to Chris over his new face makeup.
Everyone looked up from their conversations to see Mr. Conklin standing in the open doorway.
"May we help you?" Larabee asked, coldly.
"Yes." Mr. Conklin stepped into the jailhouse, easily making it the most people ever occupying the building at one time. "I have a petition signed by the citizens of this town. We are asking that no more pranks, tomfoolery, or mischief will be played or conducted by you gentlemen... and ladies," he added, tipping his hat.
"What is this nonsense?" demanded Mary Travis, grabbing the piece of paper from the town's spokesmen. The newspaperwoman began to read the document. "Gloria! You signed this?"
Mrs. Potter had the grace to blush. "That was before you invited me to participate."
Conklin addressed the group. "We pay you regulators to protect our town, not for shenanigans."
"Aw, hell, we throw them in fer free," assured the tracker.
The businessman hmphed and exited, slamming the door on the laughter.
"Guess we need a new hobby, Pard." Buck grinned at his oldest friend.
Larabee grinned back. "How 'bout a little target practice?"
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